The Gibby’s Dilemma

Thomas Kachadurian at the entrance to Gibbyville

Tom at the entrance to Gibbyville

More than 20 years ago my brother and I made a profound decision. We decided that we were going with button-down collars all the rest of the way. Since that life-changing moment he has strayed. He had a brief flirtation with tab collars, and even to this day he will buy a shirt with a plain old floppy collar and have his tailor make it into a button-down. Not me. I made my decision and I’ve been all button-down since.

I realized earlier this week I have been coasting since then. Sure I’ve gotten married, had children, even started my own business, but I’ve left the heavy lifting to others. I decided it was time once again to make a single bold move and not look back. I came to this realization at Gibbyville. Yesterday I found myself once again facing that age-old decision: Elephant Ear or Funnel Cake. It was time to commit to just one.

Once a year, like clockwork, the Gibby’s people drag their trailers full of hot fat to our fair city and offer what many believe to be the finest fried food available in the world. The National Cherry Festival has changed over the years. They’ve canceled events, moved the entertainment stage, and even considered shortening the whole thing to only 4 days. But no one, not one person, would suggest having a Cherry Festival without Gibby’s

A bit of background. Gibby’s is perhaps most famous for their “good” fries. Small, large or bucketful, every kid who grows up in Traverse City knows you are required to have an order of Gibby’s Good Fries at least once each July. The Cherry Festival isn’t about queens or parades, not even cherries—sometimes we have to bring in sweet cherries from Washington when the crop is late. No, Cherry Festival is about eating foods that are really bad for you.

Gibby’s Good Fries are not particularly light and crispy like the classic Golden Arches. The Gibby’s secret is closely guarded but I’m pretty sure it involves frying them twice to get the fat just a little deeper into the potato. If you could eat them every week they would quickly lose their charm. It would be gross to eat them everyday. But when you can have these limp greasy fries only one week a year they are oddly desirable.

Fries are where the Gibby experience starts, but the real gibficionado knows it’s all about dessert. You can’t eat both an elephant ear and a funnel cake in the same year, especially if in the same week you have even a small order of fries. It’s technically legal, but the scholarship is thin. It’s not known if anyone has tried eating both an elephant ear and funnel cake and lived long enough to write about it.

Libby's Elephant Ears by photographer Thomas KachadurianMost of us mere mortals have to pick one of the two. The choice is always followed by that nagging doubt, sometimes even before the last bit of fried dough is gone, “should I have gone for the batter?”

Just so you know, the Elephant Ear isn’t an ear at all. The people of Thailand will be happy to know it’s not even made from elephant. (Note to vegans, this is proof that “vegetarian” does not mean “good for you”.) An elephant ear is a big piece of raw yeast bread, something about the size of a small pizza before the sauce and cheese. It’s fried and that’s it. It’s only becomes dessert when you sprinkle it with a generous flow of cinnamon sugar.

Not surprisingly, Funnel Cakes have nothing to do with funnels. Or for that matter, cake. A 10” diameter stainless steel ring is placed in hot oil. Batter is dripped into the oil in a thin wiggly dribble (this may be where the funnel was once used, but now it’s a metal pitcher with a thin spout). Once the ring is full of squiggles of frying batter it bubbles and hisses for a few minutes until the ring is lifted off and the “cake” is flipped to brown the other side. All by itself the funnel cake is a bit sweet, sort of like a waffle without syrup. But the real beauty of the funnel cake is its many crevices and wrinkles that will hold the cinnamon sugar.

I have to take this opportunity to talk about toppings. While I will recognize that powdered sugar is a legitimate, though misdirected, alternative to cinnamon sugar. I reject whole-heartedly any other topping. Cherries belong in a pie. Put custard in Napoleons. Chocolate sauce goes on ice cream. Both elephant ears and funnel cakes are only complete with cinnamon sugar and nothing else. Enough said.

So there I was on Union Street. The elephant ear trailer was on the east side of the street and the funnel cake booth on the west. Now this was is a tough left/right decision. I was hungry, so the doughy near-food value of the elephant ear seemed like the sensible choice. If they are cooked just right there will be a few places where the thin crust gets crispy and the cinnamon sugar mixes with the grease to make a sweet, gooey crunch. The funnel cake, on the other hand, is all about crispy. The irregular dribbled batter gives the 10” round funnel cake the surface area of donut the size of an extra-large pizza. And that’s when it hit me.

The funnel cake can hold nearly twice the cinnamon. On the elephant ear the sugar just falls off into your lap. Beyond the crusty exterior of the elephant ear there is a doughy interior, it’s almost good for you. The funnel cake on the other hand is nearly all crispy, fried surface. More crunch, more grease, plenty of sugar, no discernable food value at all. Isn’t that the point? The funnel cake is pure guilty pleasure, no pretense, my kind of treat.

It was time for a bold move, and the funnel cake is the bold, no apology desert for me. Right there on Union Street I said good-bye to the elephant ear. I won’t waste any more time wondering. If you are looking for me at Cherry Festivals from here on, I’ll be the guy with a button-down collar and a funnel cake. It feels good to have that settled.

National Cherry Festival by photographer Thomas Kachadurian


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