There’s a reason why the Minnesota State Fair enjoys a reputation as one of the biggest and best of its kind in America, and that reason is the food— not just carnival staples like funnel cakes, cotton candy and Sno-Cones, but a bewildering array of truly phantasmagorical Frankenfoods, like candied bacon donut sliders and deep-fried insert-literally-any-word-here on a stick. So when you travel from the East Coast all the way to St. Paul to attend the fair for the very first time like I did this weekend, and your only goal is to simply devour as much fair fare as possible, you need a game plan. Mine was to show up on an empty stomach alongside two very willing friends and a husband who’s equally eating-obsessed. We’d order one of anything that strikes our fancy and share it so as to stay within what my spouse only half-jokingly called our “10,000-calorie limit.” Here’s everything we managed to shove down our pieholes over the course of an insane day, while somehow surviving to tell the tale.
Deep-fried Twinkie on a stick. After passing through the entry gates, it took less than four minutes to decide on breakfast. While the deep-fried Twinkie on a stick was chosen mainly for geographic reasons (the stand was right there), it tasted like a fancy pastry from some hipster artisanal doughnut shop. The heat of the deep fryer imparted a custardy texture to the cream filling of the Twinkie, which was topped with a rich, delightful combo of chocolate syrup, strawberry sauce and powdered sugar. (Apparently, customers are asked which one topping they’d like, but my hubby requested ours with all three. I married a genius.)
Pronto Pup. Invented by an Oregon couple during the Great Depression, a Pronto Pup is like a corn dog, but with the wiener coated in a flour-based, pancake-like batter before deep-frying. Similar to the Twinkie, the Pronto Pup proved to be another bit of culinary wonderment. Its exterior was lightly fried to perfection, producing a crispy and not-too-sweet shell with a juicy frank inside. A few bites (plus a generous guzzle of bottled water, purchased outside the fairgrounds for $1 a pop) and my morning hunger is gone— even if I can’t help feeling guilty that I’ve just consumed my most ill-advised breakfast since the cold-pizza Sunday mornings of my twenties.
Church dining hall. Speaking of acceptable breakfasts, I discover mid-Pronto Pup that several local congregations operate sit-down eateries at the fair, where I could enjoy a proper, plated meal cooked and served by a polite battalion of churchgoing folk. While eggs, etc. sounds like a smarter way to fuel up than the stick food I’ve consumed thus far, I figure my Pronto Pup and deep-fried Twinkie essentially count as flapjacks, sausage and a doughnut, and I decide to pass on the church food. Sorry, Jesus, but gluttony is a virtue today.
Tom Thumb Donuts. My last breakfast course comes from a company that exists solely to make mini-doughnuts at fairs, festivals and the like. Tom Thumb Donuts are quick-fried— you can watch them go from raw dough to finished product in about a minute thanks to a nifty, turntable-style conveyer belt— and dusted with granulated sugar. Again, amazing texture and taste. Funny, I always assumed people raved about the food at the Minnesota State Fair because there’s just so much of it. It never occurred to me that maybe the appeal lies in the fact that the food is actually, you know, spectacularly well made.
Frosted Flake-crusted chicken tender on a stick. The chicken is juicy as all get-out and the crust has integrity; a swipe of hot sauce applied by one of my friends perfectly plays off the cereal’s sweetness. I’m seriously starting to think the James Beard Foundation should be handing out awards here. I’m also starting to think that unprocessed proteins like this delicious white-meat poultry are the key to an unburdened stomach today.
Corn dog. For Pronto Pup comparison’s sake, we buy a generic corn dog. It’s clearly inferior; the corn-based batter is too sweet and there’s too much of it covering the hot dog, throwing off your dog-to-coating ratio. Pro tip: Avoid the fair’s no-name food stands. That’s where the less fresh, less tasty edibles hide.
Hot apple dumpling. You know how in old Bugs Bunny cartoons, a finger-shaped waft of tantalizing smoke would beckon someone to a freshly baked apple pie sitting on a windowsill? That person is my husband, so I’m not surprised we’ve made a stop here. Just as I’m about to tuck into my mid-morning dessert, I spy…
Swedish egg coffee. Proffered by another church dining operation (Salem Lutheran, which has been in business at the fair for 60-plus years), Swedish egg coffee is, for better or worse, exactly what it sounds like: Coffee brewed with raw egg. A framed sign reveals how it’s made and claims the beverage comes out “clear,” but to me it looks— and tastes— like regular joe. A minor letdown, but a neat cooking hack for sneaking more protein into my diet.
Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar. Sweet Martha’s was born at the fair more than 30 years ago; there are now several Sweet Martha’s stands on the grounds, selling chocolate-chip cookies in two sizes: Cone or bucket. (You’ll see people carting buckets everywhere, as if the fair offers no other means of sustenance.) I order a cone and watch as the girl behind the counter slings a Jenga-esque tower of at least 20 cookies into a triangular paper cup. I have just come from a funhouse ride where I got dizzy and was informed by the ride operator that I have terrible balance, so I consider it a small achievement that I make it back to my party with every last cookie intact. Guess what I reward myself with? At least three cookies.
Idaho taco. We spot this stand below us while riding the Sky Glider, one of those slow-moving air gondolas that seems custom-made for our day of grazing. (No nauseating g-force, plus no need to exert ourselves while traveling from one end of the fairgrounds to the other!) Is an Idaho taco a taco shell filled with mashed potato, or is it a baked potato filled with taco fixings? According to the stand’s cartoonish illustrations, it’s the latter (a.k.a. a loaded baked potato).
Strawberries and whipped cream. Soon after disembarking from the Sky Glider, a friend puts a cup of this in my hand. Sure, why not? In these environs, berries and cream may as well be a master cleanse, and I’d like to think the fruit is another whole food that might keep indigestion at bay.
World’s Greatest French Fries. That’s what the sign says, but our palates tell us differently. Even though the fries are fresh (as so many foods at the fair are, because it’s nearly impossible to keep up with demand), they taste inexplicably stale on the inside. Not only are these not the world’s greatest French fries, they’re not even the greatest French fries I’ve had this week. Womp, womp.
Deep-fried cheese curds. Luckily, we rebound with these, sold one stand over. The curds are heavenly.
Spam curds. It’s past noon before we finally happen upon one of the Minnesota State Fair’s 30 or so new foodsfor 2016, and these Spam “curds” are worth the wait. Boxy nuggets of processed pork come sheathed in what tastes like Italian bread crumbs, and I dare say the deep fryer lends the Spam an almost souffle-like fluffiness. I ask the five people working the Spam stand which condiment (ketchup, mustard, ranch, etc.) I should pair with the curds. They unanimously reply, “Sweet and sour sauce.” They’re exactly right.
Deep-fried pickles. These are not the first deep-fried pickles I’ve ever had, but they’re up there with some of the best. We dip them in ranch. Divine.
Cheesy French onion monkey bread. Another new food for 2016 is this savory pull-apart bread topped with melted cheese, served in a paper boat with a shallow pool of French onion soup. It tastes like the remains of French onion soup in a bread bowl, which is to say, perfectly yummy.
Bread pudding sundae. Ordered from the same stand as the monkey bread, this turns out to be a mound of bread pudding topped with caramel sauce and pecans. The pudding is squishy in a good way, chilled toward the bottom of the plastic tub it’s served in but room temperature at the top. This works for me, as bread pudding is one of my favorite foods and I like it at all temperatures. In fact, while everyone else complains that the dish is too sugary, I secretly shovel huge spoonfuls down my gullet when nobody’s looking. My only complaint is that it wasn’t served a la mode. (Bread pudding sundae, hello?!)
Chocolate milkshake. We’re near the dairy barn, so this one’s a no-brainer. It’s thick enough to necessitate a spoon and I crave some more deep-fried cheese curds to dip in it. This probably sounds like a death wish given the day’s menu so far, but I swear I feel totally fine. It turns out what we learned in kindergarten applies to what we eat at the fair: Sharing is caring (about your digestive system).
Spam sushi. Although I feel like I should try this because it’s on the 2016 new-food list, it’s being sold inside the same building where a horse show is taking place. Since I’ve been pressing my luck with the nonstop calorie and grease and carb consumption, I don't dare order Spam sushi within sight of a pile of manure. Hard pass.
Famous “Elvis” sandwich. I take a break to go on a river raft ride, which comes with the built-in bonus of having no food stands nearby as we endure a 20-minute wait in line. I then return to land (the raft ride was tame but still, my stomach miraculously survived) and I attempt the remains of my husband’s grilled banana and peanut butter sandwich. I wish I’d been able to enjoy this fresh off the grill, as it’s a bit leaden. On the plus side, after deciding that one bite is enough, I realize I’ve ingested a near-constant stream of carbs and fat for almost seven hours, yet oddly I still feel alive.
I’m not full and my insides feel surprisingly normal, even sort of great. In fact, my only complaint is that I’m wiped from being on my feet all day. The group-eating strategy has definitely worked, which means there’s plenty of room in our bellies to end the day with...
A Minnesota craft beer sampler. After sticking to water (and Swedish egg coffee) all day, at long last: alcohol! Our four-brew sampler, which we quaff on our way toward the exit, comes in a cardboard carrying case that looks like a pizza box...Hey, anyone else feel like a pizza right now?
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