We’re firmly into the fair season here in the U.S. — state fairs, county fairs, street fairs (like the one going on this weekend in my neighborhood), whatever — and that’s the Regrettable Food Season, with monstrous concoctions combining some or all of sugar, fat, and dough, and with food fried, salted, stuffed with other such edibles, or topped with unheathful but delicious substances. Deep-fried everything, up to Twinkies, Oreos, bacon, and butter; at the fair it’s not just such traditionally deep-fried objects as dough, cut-up potatoes, yam slices, and battered fish, shellfish, or vegetables. Fruit, like apples, yes, but candied. Belgian waffles. Burgers, hot dogs, and sausages of all descriptions, including corn dogs and bagel dogs, and, now, burgers sandwiched between two Krispy Kremes. Cones of crushed ice drizzled with a selection of tooth-aching flavored sugar syrups. Mexican, Guatemalan, Middle Eastern, Indian street food. Cotton candy. All-day suckers. Popcorn. Corn on the cob. And of course ice cream cones. To drink, soda pop, and for the older folks, beer and wine.
[Even the modest street fair in my neighborhood is a minefield of food that is regrettable for someone in the grip of multiple restrictive diets. Not so hard to resist, though, when the street is lined with places offering all sorts of non-fair food, and still more places are just a block or two off the street. It's not like you're trapped in a gigantic fenced-in fairground. So I resisted, and am now an 11-stone cowboy, still aiming for 10 stone.
People ask why I've started talking about these things in terms of stone, beyond the fact that I've lived on and off in the U.K. Well, it's nice to have a unit larger than a pound, which is small for some purposes, like body weights, but smaller than a hundredweight -- either the Imperial long hundredweight of 112 pounds or the U.S. short hundredweight of 100 pounds, not that most English speakers use hundredweight at all -- and the stone fills that role pretty well, though the tenweight would accord better with the way pound-speakers tend to think of body weights, but virtually no one uses the word tenweight at all. (Kilograms are, in a sense, worse than pounds, since though they're larger there's no current word like stone -- a name, say myriagram, for 10 kilos, for instance.)]
Now, glimpsed at the Oregon State Fair (if they’re there, they’re probably lots of places), a variety of fried dough called mammoth ears. In a photo taken by David Roderick Johnson and passed on to me on Facebook by our mutual friend Ned Deily:
(Note the toppings offered — excess piled on excess.) Ned knows that the woolly mammoth (or, as I usually prefer to write, with the writer of the sign above, wooly mammoth, to catch the little pun on woo) is my major totem animal (explanation here).
Mammoth ears is a nomenclatural variant of elephant ears, and elephant ears are a species of fried dough commonly offered at fairs. The label mammoth ears is no doubt intended to depict these edible objects as really really big, bigger even than your everyday elephant ears, though actual woolly mammoths were about the same size as modern elephants (the extinct mammoths and the modern elephants of course vary considerably in size); the extra punch comes from the word mammoth ‘extremely large’, rather than from the beasts themselves. Also, mammoths are, culturally, cuter than elephants.
(Yes, I know that there’s an ornamental leafy plant called “elephant ears”, for the similarity of its leaves to the ears of elephants — actually, various tropical plants in the genus Colocasia, especially C. esculenta, the taro plant. Yes, the food staple taro, which comes from the corms of the plant, processed into an edible starch. But caladiums aren’t really relevant to fair food.)
Back to fried dough. Wikipedia as of this morning says, helpfully:
Fried dough is a North American food associated with outdoor food stands in carnivals, amusement parks, fairs, rodeos, and seaside resorts (though it can be made at home). Fried dough is the specific name for a particular variety of fried bread made of a yeast dough; see the accompanying images for an example of use on carnival-booth signage. Fried dough is also known as fry dough [note “t/d deletion”], beaver tails [Canada], elephant ears, whales tails, tiger ears, pizza frita [in Italian], frying saucers [note pun], buñuelos [in Spanish] in the case of smaller pieces, and in Rhode Island squares of pizza dough that get deep fried and covered in sugar are called doughboys; these foods are virtually identical to each other, and recognizably different from other fried dough foods such as doughnuts, beignets, or fritters.
… An smaller Italian variant [cutnpaste error, with an Italian edited to include smaller, but without amending an to a] common in North America is the zeppole [pl. zeppoli].
The carnival booth:
Most of the names for the kind of flat fried dough offered at fairs, to be eaten as is or with a variety of toppings, are straightforwardly metaphorical, alluding to the elliptical/circular shape and large (relative) size of something else: elephants’ ears, flying saucers, beavers’ tails or queues de castor, etc. (I don’t know the etymology of buñuelo or zeppole, but then I’m not an etymologist of English, much less Spanish or Italian — in this case, Southern varieties of Italian.)
My own ears aren’t small, but though they are the ears of a mammoth, they aren’t mammoth, either.