Calgary Stampede: Come for the rodeo, stay for the bug-covered ice cream

Why We Wrote This

Weird, deep-fried midway food is nothing new for state fairs. But how did the Calgary Stampede go from that sort of fare to lemonade full of edible flowers, an octopus on a stick, and bug-covered ice cream?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Brian Lokhorst eats a “Monster Bug Bowl” – ice cream with bugs on top, including a big June bug and silkworms – while his wife, Nancy, reacts during a food tour at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta. About 30 bug bowls are sold each day.

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A decade ago, the food available to visitors to the Calgary Stampede, the annual rodeo that celebrates Canadian prairie culture, fell into two categories: traditional fair treats like mini-donuts or candy apples, and standard summer foods like hot dogs.

But today, the midway menu offers a rite of passage that fits perfectly with the spirit of barrel racing and steer wrestling. Food writer Gwendolyn Richards says she approaches the new foods list published prior to Stampede each year with equal anticipation and dread. “I can’t wait to see what insane concoctions the vendors have come up with,” she says.

Sometimes the quest for novelty creates a dish surprisingly tasty, like “The Pickle Pizza.” But it’s the extreme items that generate the most chatter. There’s the “Octo Lolly,” literally an octopus on a stick, and the spicy “Cherry Bomb Pizza,” which seems tame enough until the popping candy and maraschino cherries are added.

The “Monster Bug Bowl” is the most daring dish at the 2019 Calgary Stampede: ice cream topped with grasshoppers, silkworms, and a big June beetle. Customers either call it “not bad,” says stand owner Mark Noble, “or they are dry-heaving as they eat it.”

When the teenager scooping ice cream for his summer job at Monster Cones suggests chocolate chip cookie dough or Moose Tracks, it’s not for the flavors.

“I recommend something chunkier,” he tells the group earnestly. “To mask the bugs.”

If they were wary at that point, it gets worse when their sundae – rocky road served in a homemade waffle cup – arrives, and there is no mistaking the toppings for nuts or diced marshmallows. “We have silkworm here, we have grasshoppers over there, and this guy on top is a June beetle.”

Most of the tour steps back. But Calgary resident Brian Lokhorst spoons up the giant black bug – the “cherry” atop the “Monster Bug Bowl” – with a generous helping of ice cream. He puts the whole thing in his mouth, chewing slowly while the group shrieks, and then he swallows as bystanders look at him with awe, before breaking into hearty applause.

Welcome to the latest spectacle of the Calgary Stampede, the annual rodeo that celebrates Canadian prairie culture and bills itself as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Food vendors line the midway at the Calgary Stampede. There are 175 food vendors at the Stampede this year, offering 90 new foods.

In a 10-day fair that traces its roots to the 1886 Calgary Exhibition, invented as a forum of exchange for western agricultural practice, extreme eating has become part of Stampede culture, alongside the rodeo, free pancake breakfasts, and chuck wagon races.

A decade ago, James Radke, the manager of midway operations, says the food available to Stampede visitors fell into two categories: traditional fair treats like mini-donuts or candy apples, and standard summer foods like hot dogs.

But he says the Food Network and the burgeoning foodie movement inspired him beyond the usual fried fare, and the Stampede joined the race toward over-the-top foods. They started with simple fusions that are still on display today, like bacon pancakes or funnel cake pizza.

And it’s gotten wilder ever since, turning into a “Fear Factor”-esque rite of passage that fits perfectly with the spirit of barrel racing and steer wrestling. “People started to egg each other on,” says Mr. Radke. “That’s when it all started, when food became a sport.”

It’s now become a “thing,” says Calgary food writer Gwendolyn Richards. She approaches the new foods list published prior to Stampede each year with equal anticipation and dread. “I can’t wait to see what insane concoctions the vendors have come up with,” she says. But when she’s asked to be an official judge, like this year, “it means I have to put some of those things in my mouth.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
James Radke, manager of midway operations, tries a pickle pizza at Rick's Pizza on a dare with the writer.

Sometimes the quest for novelty creates a dish surprisingly tasty, like “The Pickle Pizza.” Tristan Ukmar, whose family created the pie with Mr. Radke’s input, says they experimented in the months before Stampede with various bases, from pesto to pickled olive oil. They settled on a dill ranch dressing, covered in mozzarella cheese and slices of pickles in the place of pepperoni. “My mom is eating a slice a day,” he says. “She never eats pizza.”

Mr. Radke says the midway has witnessed five years of falling pizza sales, but this year he suspects that trend is over.

The food tour, named “Take a Bite Outta Stampede” and available to the general public this year, stops at a stall selling fried artichoke hearts – even here in “Cowtown” the vegetarian movement is gaining ground, tour guide Lisa Conboy says – and at a lemonade stand that is offering an exquisitely prepared version with edible flowers. We stop at a dumpling truck, whose signature dish this year is a lobster-filled wonton with truffle mayo and a side of lobster tail encrusted in edible gold.

But it’s the extreme items, typically on offer just a year before being retired for new inventions, that generate the most chatter. There’s the “Octo Lolly,” literally an octopus on a stick, and the spicy “Cherry Bomb Pizza,” which seems tame enough until the popping candy and maraschino cherries are added.

There are deep-fried chicken skins and chicken hearts on a stick – influenced by Asian foods that Mr. Radke says are hot this summer. There’s also a craze for all things dill, hence pickle cotton candy and pickle ice cream served in a cone with a pickle sticking out.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Rose lemonade with edible flowers is offered during a food tour at the Calgary Stampede.

The food tour stops at Big CoCo’s Corndogs, made famous last year by their “Tornado,” a hot-dog-stuffed pickle with a deep-fried tortilla exterior.

“Delicious,” says Scott Dennis, who conceived of the item. “So then we thought, ‘Everyone loves chocolate. Let’s throw some chocolate in there.’”

And that’s the genesis behind this year’s “Snickle Dog,” which Mr. Dennis admits is less about the deep-fried hot dog-pickle-Snickers combination. “It’s the out-there-ness,” he says.

Indeed, Nancy Lokhorst seems to be his target audience. “I’m glad I tried it because it’s weird,” she says, “and I wanted to do something weird but that wasn’t disgusting.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
David Pelletier tries a cotton candy taco during a food tour at the Calgary Stampede. It was his favorite offering on the tour.

Her husband is not so concerned about the disgusting part. Indeed, the “Monster Bug Bowl” is the most daring of the foods at the 2019 Calgary Stampede.

Monster Cones owner Mark Noble says they’ve sold about 30 bug bowls a day. Customers either call it “not bad,” he says, “or they are dry-heaving as they eat it.”

He and his staff have given their toppings a try and agree the bugs taste like sawdust. Mr. Lokhorst, understated in comparison to his feat, says the beetle tasted “not good” and a little “leggy.”

There’s one person – besides this writer – who will have nothing to report back: Mr. Radke himself, the brainchild of the Stampede smorgasbord.

“Oh, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t even go near those foods,” he says. “I’m a bratwurst with sauerkraut kind of guy.”

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