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Take a bite out of Kennywood

Sunday, June 20, 1999

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If you believe the hype, Kennywood Park's biggest thrills and chills are on the roller coasters. Maybe not. For an enthusiastic eater, it's the food, not the rides, that spells excitement.

From left, Bor-Ling Chen, Don Stiffler, Paul Mattern and Jennie Stiffler, all from Hollidaysburg, share their souvenir drink holders along the midway at Kennywood. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

Most people agree that the biggest food thrill in the park is the Potato Patch, where the lines for french fries never quit. On a typical day, some 500 pounds of Idaho spuds are washed, cut, fried and served up hot and fresh in 1-pound servings. You want gravy with that? Melted cheese? Garlic, onion, barbecue or seasoned salt? More than a half-million servings of Potato Patch fries are sold during the short four-month season, making them the No. 1 food item in sales at the park. The potatoes have won many awards for Best Potato at an Amusement Park. Yes, there are such awards.

Among the chills at Kennywood are Dip-n-Dots, a futurama ice cream whose serving temperature is minus-40 degrees. No scoops and cones for this ice cream. It comes in pearl-sized pills poured into 5-ounce paper cups. Dip into them with a plastic spoon for a wildly odd tongue sensation on a hot day.

Traditionalists will prefer the Golden Nugget Dip-Cone, a wedge of ice cream packed onto a double wafer cone, then dunked into warm, gooey chocolate and rolled in jimmies. A speared maraschino cherry tops off this summer masterpiece.

Every Kennywood food presentation is over the top. Portions are humongous. To say the food is overstated is an understatement. Believe it when you see the half-pound Frisbee-sized cookies, as round as a child's face and stabilized with a fat popsicle-stick handle.

This is not junk food. The stuff is fresh, and much of it is absolutely delicious. Most of the food is cooked before your very eyes, and none is made ahead and held longer than the short time it takes to get it scooped, wrapped or off the griddle and into a container.

    Sample prices

Except for a few entrees, all Kennywood food-item prices are under $5.

Hot dog: $1.90.

Philly beef and cheese: $3.25.

Personal deep-dish pizza: $3.

Double crunch cone: $1.95.

Potato Patch fries: $2.25.

Taco grande: $2.

Cheeseburger platter: $3.55.

Juice: $1.65.

Turkey croissant: $4.50.

Dip-n-Dots: $2.25.


Doughnuts are made from scratch. So are the apple dumplings and cinnamon twists, spirals of sweet dough and spices. Mountains of Red Delicious apples get crackling crisper and glowing redder after a dunk in caramelized sugar.

Belgian waffles start as batter clinging to an iron branding tool. Then, magically, the batter turns crisp and light after a dip in bubbling fat, ready to shatter at each bite. It is so light that to keep it from floating away, the waffle should be ordered weighed down with ice cream, strawberries and whirls of whipped cream.

Should anyone lapse into a health guilt trip, there are turkey croissant sandwiches, pasta or green salads and strawberry cups, crimson heaps of berries so high they could easily fill a pie plate.

There are 18 food stands in the park. The biggest stand, the Soda Fountain, is divided into Kennywood's three basic food groups -- burgers and dogs, fried dough cakes and candy. Lots of candy.

The Soda Fountain is actually a large wooden building adjacent to the merry-go-round. In 1898, it was the original shell that housed a much smaller merry-go-round. In 1936, Kennywood bought a new one and had it shipped from Philadelphia. But OOPS. The new merry-go-round was too big and had to have a new home.

How they do it

Robin Derry, 21, of Homestead is a University of Pittsburgh student and manager of the popular Potato Patch. Derry, slicing a potato into fries, has worked at Kennywood for four seasons. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

Each visitor has about four to six eating experiences during the day, says Carol Palangio, operations manager for Kennywood Refreshment Co. "We keep portions big and prices low. Most food and drink items are priced well under a five-dollar bill."

How does the park maintain such good food quality?

"We teach the servers to gauge their cooking," Palangio continues. "They're trained to make small batches of food and cook right in front of the guest's nose. That way, the food is always fresh, and there's very little waste."

Even so, anything left over is pitched at the end of the day.

People enjoy their jobs, says Palangio, a 23-year Kennywood veteran. "When we hire summer workers, we look for people with pride, enthusiasm and a good work ethic. Most of our 400 team-member staff are high school students, and for many of them it's a first job. About 10 percent are college students. Most of the team members spend about three or four years working with us."

Yes, there's an athletic lingo. If the servers behind the counters are team members, their bosses are coaches, they dress in the locker room and they eat in the clubhouse. It must work.

The food service motto is: "Stack it high and watch it fly." The Philly beef and cheese sandwich, for instance, is typical. Not until you order does a steak patty hit the grill, sizzle with chopped onions and green peppers, get topped with a slice of provolone cheese and get stuffed all hot and melty into a big, freshly baked hoagie bun that is at least two sizes too small for its load.

You are well-advised to save one of your six eating experiences for the hot sausage sandwich, grilled with onions and red peppers and served on a bun. Buy it at the Pagoda pavilion, a quasi-Oriental construction built 15 years ago. Old-timers might notice the red dragon heads sticking out from the pagoda's walls and wonder why they look so familiar. Easy. The dragons were once on the fronts of the boats in the Old Mill.

Noshing in the park comes with a soundtrack. In the background, shrieks and screams are constant. You can't bite into a corn dog without hearing the rattle of the Thunderbolt. Cheese on a stick is accompanied by peals of laughter from Noah's Ark.

Tempting food is everywhere. Spicy Buffalo chicken tenders are matched with fries at a smaller Potato Patch stand over in Lost Kennywood, a six-acre park expansion that houses the Shoot-the-Chute and the Exterminator. And did we forget to mention Mexican tacos, Hetzel's pretzels and pizzas as big as a bicycle wheel?

Jill Murtha of Baldwin and Brian Osborn of Mt. Lebanon enjoy fries from the Potato Patch. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

A person has to wash down all of this food with a drink. Every year, Kennywood commissions a collectible souvenir cup. These are some of the goofiest, color-emblazoned shapes and sizes you can imagine. This year it's a hot pink pseudo-chemistry flask. Buy one for $2.55, and fill it with any drink in the park. Lemonade is good, and so is soda pop. Or try a new frozen slush drink, a fruity Smurf-blue concoction that nobody over 10 with any kind of taste should be seen drinking.

For a real meal with all courses present, there's the Parkside Terrace cafeteria. It's right in the middle of the park, handy for families, but off the eaten track for most kids. Unless it rains, that is. Then it's packed, and the turkey, pasta and fish-fry dinners disappear.

For all the eating and drinking going on, the park is remarkably clean, and the sidewalks are free of litter. Thanks go to a corps of 22 Sweeperettes who are on their feet behind brooms from opening until close of the park. The "Litter-gitter" truck patrols for big hunks of trash.

A shaded picnic grove is available for folks who want to bring along a picnic lunch from home. This BYOB stands for bring-your-own-basket. No alcoholic beverages are allowed in the park.

Of course, you can't go home without having cotton candy. The machines are never turned off from open to close at the park. The staff who twist and bag the sugar strands begin to look aged and gray by the end of their shifts when hair, eyelashes and brows are covered and matted with fine strands of woolly sugar.

Leaving the park, most visitors stop at the Kandy Kaleidoscope building across from the Old Mill and the Turnpike. With potential for sugar highs and lows steeper and deeper than the Steel Phantom's, shoppers are hard-pressed to choose from Kennywood's famous fudge, chocolate-covered pretzels, jumbo pralines, sunflower-sized lollipops and red licorice whips.

If Mom stayed at home, bring her a carousel-shaped tin of toffee. If Kid Brother didn't make it either, placate the little futurist with a couple of chartreuse Alien-Glo lollipops. After sucking on the head of a flavored alien with its eerie almond-shaped eyes, break its stick to turn it into a glow-in-the-dark bracelet.

You expected less?

Monster Chunk Cookies

2 cups flour
1 cup rolled oats, dry
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) butter
1 1/3 cups dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped into large chunks

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, baking soda and salt.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream the butter. Beat in the sugar and continue to beat until well-combined. Beat in the eggs, and add vanilla.

On low speed, blend in the flour mixture, stirring in the last bit with a wooden spoon. Stir in the chocolate chunks.

Divide the dough into 15 equal portions. Place the portions of dough 3 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet and pat into disks 1/2-inch thick.

Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, or until lightly browned on the underside. Cool on a cookie sheet for 1 minute, then carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Makes 15 large cookies.

"Mrs. Fields I Love Chocolate Cookbook"

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