I enjoy making an annual trip to the Gwinnett County Fair. Like most people, I have my yearly routine and don't deviate from it much. I hit many of the same places in the same order year after year, the familiarity as enjoyable as the sights and sounds.But little did I know I've been getting a little taste of home as I've been taking in the tasty treats. I learned that on Monday while visiting with Roger Williams.
Williams is a concessionaire based out of Seneca, S.C., and owns an outfit called Road Runner Enterprises. He works about 11 fairs a year and also has a couple of full-time spots closer to home. His speciality (actually his only thing) is fresh cut French fries with vinegar and salt. He spends his fair days cutting up and frying potatoes and talking to the fair goers who stop by his stand, situated on a corner across from the Haunted Mansion.
"I enjoy people," said Williams, who also has a fireworks business. "When people come to my window I always ask them where they're from. And a lot of them say: 'I come to the fair for the vinegar fries.'"
I'm one of those people. I didn't know Williams before meeting him this week, but his stand is always my first stop at the fair. It reminds me of home and the vinegar fries I grew up eating at the Illinois State Fair, and with good reason, I now know.
At the Illinois fair, Culler's French Fries is the big draw. It's so popular that there are two Culler's stands at the fairgrounds. For me it was a family affair. My parents loved eating those fries and so did my sister. We couldn't wait to go eat them when the fair came to town. In fact, it was the first stand I went to on a recent trip to Springfield.
So imagine my surprise when Williams told me he got his start through the Culler family.
"The Cullers put me in the business," Williams said, adding that his challenge is getting Southerners to try the fries with vinegar. Williams said it's more of a Northern thing, which makes sense seeing that the late Forest Culler was from Ohio and Culler's Fries sets up shops at fairs in Indiana and Illinois as well as Ohio.
I have to confess I didn't know much about Mr. Culler, just his fries. But an Internet search quickly showed that I'm hardly alone in my love of Culler's famous fair fries. Seems they are a hit with folks of all ages and area codes. But why vinegar instead of ketchup?
"Well, I did at the very beginning," Forest Culler told the Illinois times in an interview published in 2007. "But too many kids had too much fun squirting catsup at each other and everybody else, so I decided it wasn't worth the mess. Whenever people ask for catsup, I tell them, 'I'm selling potatoes, not tomatoes!'"
That's what Williams sells as well. In his fourth year at the Gwinnett fair, Williams said he's making dietary inroads. When he first started at the Gwinnett fair he sold 12 cases worth of potatoes weighing 50 pounds a case. This year he's on pace to sell 25 cases worth.
"I'm in the same place each year and people come by looking for us," Williams said. "I had some people the other day come by and say: 'We're from New Jersey and we haven't been able to find vinegar fries since we moved down here."
I'm glad to have found Williams' stand. Even happier to learn his story. And next year when fair time arrives again, I'll be back at that corner stand, ordering a bucket of fries to go with a side of memories.
Email Todd Cline at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Wednesdays.