Friday, September 9th, 2011

Everything I Ate At The Minnesota State Fair

I was indoctrinated into the cult of the Minnesota State Fair six years ago. At the time, it was sort of a goof with my then-girlfriend, now-wife: we were dating long distance between San Francisco and New York, so it was an excuse to meet halfway and in her hometown. Twelve hours, two orders of fried cheese curds, several Leinie’s and a live taping of "A Prairie Home Companion" later, I was hooked for good. I've only missed it twice since. (Once, for my wedding, and then last year, because my very-expectant wife was grounded.) Now, the Fair is as much of a Labor Day tradition to me as no longer wearing white shoes. Or switching from gin to brown liquor.

For many, The Great Minnesota Get Together—the second-largest state fair in the country—revolves around food. Fairgoers are greeted with the Miracle of Birth Center upon entering the fairgrounds, where they can witness the live birth of our future food in the form of calves, chicks and ducklings. Other structures are dedicated to prize-winning pumpkins or hogs. Interspersed throughout are concessions that have turned the raw product you just viewed into stunt food like foot-long corn dogs. (Even the Midway is food focused as it encourages you to barf up what you just ate.)

The key to surviving the fair—and yes, “surviving” is a goal—is portion control. Most Fair fare should be shared, with few notable exceptions (three on a corn dog is bad luck). It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so splitting an order of cheese curds between four people will ensure that you are still in fighting form hours later at the Leinie Lodge.

This year, I partook of the following Fair staples, in order:

• Corn dog
• Mini donut
• Fried cheese curds
• Smoked beef stick
• Summit Extra Pale Ale
• Walleye cakes
• Chicken-fried bacon
• Walleye fries
• Leinenkugel Original
• Mini cinnies
• Pork chop on a stick
• Leinenkugel Oktoberfest
• Cheddar stick
• Strawberry shake

I’m not gonna lie. Somewhere around the chicken-fried bacon, things went a little south. One bite would have been enough—a whole strip of the stuff was too much. My first year at the Fair, I was a machine (I guess enthusiasm goes a long way). Now as age, parenthood and inertia have caught up with me, the fair bouillabaisse requires stamina and vigilance. Too much of one thing, a bad combination here or there, and you start scanning the fairgrounds for the Pepto-Bismol-on-a-stick booth. Over the years, I’ve experienced a few clunkers: deep-fried Twinkies are terrible, fried candy bars are overrated, Scotch Egg On A Stick disappointing. While my brother-in-law favors chili dogs, I eschew items that I can get at the ball game. I love the offerings that are unique to the Fair or scream Upper Midwest: Walleye anything, pork chops, cheese curds, corn.

As you eat, throngs of Midwesterners swirl around you, their woodland camo, Minnesota Vikings gear and Chaska Hockey sweatshirts making a rainbow of fruit flavor. Looking around, you can forget that Minnesota was the state of Mondale and Wellstone, but scattered around the fairgrounds are signs that Minnesota remains a liberal populist state: taking a break between adventures in gluttony, I filled out a survey for earnest-looking Al Franken volunteers with comically oversized campaign buttons. Disappointingly, the survey did not include questions concerning whether or not I had visited the Oink Booth or who my preferred cheese-curd purveyor was. Later, I’d see a Michele Bachmann scarecrow in the Agriculture Building and browse Guy Noir t-shirts the Minnesota Public Radio booth.

But yeah, the food. Oof.

I always start the Fair off with a corn dog. It just seems… right.

This offer greets you as you navigate past the Miracle of Birth building near the entrance. Both "white" and "chocolate" are available. Is "white milk" a thing?

According to a reliable source (read: my father-in-law), the top 5 sellers at the Minnesota State Fair are: french fries, Sweet Martha's Cookies, cheese curds, corn and ice cream. With sales of $2,209,697 in 2009, Sweet Martha's Cookies outsells the other four. Combined.

One of my all-time favorites—and actually, one of the healthiest things at the Fair.

While no Sweet Martha's Cookies, the two french-fries concessions rake in about $900,000 annually. Over half of that is profit.

Since 1965, this church-sponsored diner has served fairgoers with simple food that just could not compete with stunt food like deep-fried Oreos. With sales lagging and needing a new roof and fryer, this was the last year of the Epiphany.

A staple of the upper Midwest, do not ever attempt to eat a serving by yourself.

Sometimes lost in the spectacle of gastro-excess is the nice simplicity that lies behind the idea of a state fair: populist, agrarian, family-oriented.

Walleye cakes with a Summit Extra Pale Ale.

Fact: One bite of chicken-fried bacon is enough.

Warm mini cinnamon rolls served with cream cheese frosting. Worth the walk to the outer reaches of the fairgrounds to get them. Actually, justification for said walk.

The Grand Dame of state fair stunt food. Never eat these.

Pork-chop-on-a-stick at the Leinie Lodge.

The ideal spot to take a load off and enjoy six varieties of Leinenkugel beer while listening to some of the best Swedish Christian folk music around.

Celebrating the artistic use of our land's great bounty, the Crop Art exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair always features some of the best political and populist sentiment ever to be rendered in grain.

The epitome of wholesomeness: the twelve finalists for Princess Kay of the Milky Way have their likenesses reproduced in a block of butter, known as a Butter Bust.

The contest's twelve finalists must come from working dairy farms. Apparently, finalists get to keep their Butter Busts, and use them to cook with throughout the long winter.

Livestock have a central presence at the fair, serving as a helpful reminder of where our Butter Busts come from.

Replica of a Williamsburg apartment. Just kidding. While looking at these piglets, try not to be reminded of where bacon comes from.

Most of the livestock barns are set up to allow close contact with the animals, an acres-large petting zoo with Purell at each entrance and exit.

Serving Garrison-Keillor-on-a-stick.

Of course John Ore knows that Minnesota is the #1 producer of turkey in this country. Duh!

54 Comments / Post A Comment

AdamBez (#66,959)

You forgot one digit in the Sweet Martha's cookie sales figure, it was $2,209,697 in 2009. A truly incredible rake when you consider it's only 12 days of strictly cookie sales.

Carrie Frye (#9,863)

@Adam Bezdicek@twitter Oops, that extra two mill must have gotten shaved off accidentally … corrected now. Thank you!

@AdamBez My GF and I were wondering what the Martha's folks do the rest of the year. Sell cookies at other events? Swim around in piles of cash?

Dave Bry (#422)

This is excellent! (Chicken-fried bacon!) John Ore, you are an American hero.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Dave Bry Chicken-fried bacon seems rather like gilding the lily to me.

Texas State Fair is bigger how? If the measure is attendance, welp, it also runs twice as long.

Abe Sauer (#148)

The Walleye is incredible but that shit is getting prohibitively expensive.

John Ore (#7,170)

@Abe Sauer I did briefly consider whether or not I was stepping on "The Abe Sauer Beat" when I was writing this.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@John Ore Ha! No way.

Anyway, the fair can ALWAYS use more coverage. But damn, with the gate now $12 for adults and $10 for kids, that means a family of just four will be hit for $44 just to get in to an event that is billed as a "great get together." Granted, the food and ride prices have always been high, but you've always been able to bring your own food. $44 at the gate though is getting prohibitive, especially in These Times. It seems there was always some greater leavening social value to the fair above and beyond an event with a balanced budget. It seems, like everything else, it's becoming a big fun event only for those with means (see also, most sporting events, etc.)

Still, walleye is so damn good.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@John Ore I would add: Why the hell is the Leinenkugel presence still so big when there are spectacular MN beers that should dominate the fair. I mean, I know WHY ($$$$$$), but still, Surly? Summitt? It's a disgrace.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Abe Sauer Yeah I was going to ask about the Leinenkugel thing. I mean, it's a good enough beer and all.

County Fair season still rolling through Ohio…

Abe Sauer (#148)

@dntsqzthchrmn County fairs are far superior in almost every way.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Stunt food is an excellent term. Did you make it up?

John Ore (#7,170)

@boyofdestiny ™

BadUncle (#153)

Must. Have. Pork-chop-on-a-stick. STAT.

cory dodt@twitter (#12,071)

Am I to understand that Chelsey Johnson's butter entry consists of her photograph, stuck to a block of butter? Seems a little lazy.

@cory dodt@twitter That's an image of the block of butter BEFORE it was carved. They aren't all carved at once and you can watch the various Miss Kay of the Milky Way's likeness being carved while they sit in a refrigerated, rotating, popemobile of sorts.

HiredGoons (#603)

I'm eating salad alone and laughing at this.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@HiredGoons Pics or it didn't happen!

jolie (#16)

I am a beast who would like to do filthy naughty filthy things to that chicken fried bacon.

melis (#1,854)

@jolie Save it for the Ren Faire we're going to!

jolie (#16)

@melis You'll regret saying that when I'm shoving turkey legs down your corset.

saythatscool (#101)

@jolie @melis Can I just stand in a corner and watch?

I promise to be really quiet.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@saythatscool I can't guarantee I'll be quiet.

Smitros (#5,315)

@jolie I don't know this works, but the Sandwich Fair in my native Illinois, which I attended on Sautrday night, offered chocolate covered fried bacon.

cherrispryte (#444)

@jolie @melis If you two are going to a RenFaire, I WANT IN. In only a slightly creepy fashion.

Deep fried cookie dough on a stick was new this year and a winner as was the breakfast lollipop. Cheese curds and pork chop on a stick are always a must.

This was also the first year that some good beer was available. The Ball Park Cafe had local favorite Surly along with Stone, Odell, Alaskan and a few others.

hockeymom (#143)

My dad would make us go to the milk booth because back then, it was all you could drink for a dime. We'd have to stand there and drink and drink and drink because, as he said, "fresh from the cows, there's no better value!" Then we'd go down the giant slide and my youngest sister would barf up milk all over my dad and we'd all yell "Fresh from the cow, there's no better value!"
Now that very sister works at the pro-life booth at the fair, offering up condoms on a stick.
Circle of life.

My first thought on "all the milk you can drink" was, "how do they accommodate all the barfing?" Your family sounds like a bunch of wiseacres!

SuperMargie (#1,263)

To me, the State Fair is nothing but food porn and I have to prep myself a week in advance to eat there. Nothing fried, salted, processed and chow on as much fiber as possible because you will need it later.
I ate somewhat sparingly this year:
2 Pronto Pups
Cheese Curds
Frozen chocolate covered Key Lime Pie on a Stick
Honey Ice Cream (with sunflower seeds)
Roasted Corn on the Cob dipped in a BARRELL of butter
Deep Fried Twinkie (barf)
Half a Pork Chop
Breakfast Taco
Wild Rice Salad on a Stick
Austrailian Batter Dipped Taters
A LOT of tepid tap beer.

hockeymom (#143)

@SuperMargie They may call it Australian Batter Dipped "Taters" but I'm pretty sure it's just deep fried baby kangaroo.

SuperMargie (#1,263)

@hockeymom If Baby Roo is covered in that heavenly batter and enough ranch dressing, I am a-okay with that.

Tyrantanic (#13,751)

I find myself suddenly very hungry.

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

Holy crap I need to get myself to Thielen's Meat Market pronto.

LotaLota (#1,703)

@johnpseudonym I was there this weekend. Beat you to the fine, fine meaty bacon and ribeye steaks.

laurel (#4,035)

"Fairgoers are greeted with the Miracle of Birth Center upon entering the fairgrounds…"

I picture this as a rosy labial arch.

roboloki (#1,724)

it's as though the folks running the church-sponsored diner had a sudden insight into realiy. a moment of clarity even.
but seriously, loved this. more cornography please.

I now feel like an idiot for skipping the NC State Fair the past two years (due to anti-redneck bias and too much Bucky Covington music.) Even though our stunt food is more Jackass to Minnesota's Evel Knievel, it's still worth it for the amazing chickens and the proud/nervous preteens showing their prized livestock.

scottorrot (#7,358)

This person also tweeted everything he ate at the fair on the appropriate date:

Wait, the lady in butter is not Michele Bachmann? I was hoping this was thematic for the 2012 election.

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ritalove2011 (#69,112)

How are you and how is your work? i hope that all is well with you, My name is miss Rita i know that you may be suprise how i get your email, i got your profil today at when i was browsing looking for honest partner,then i feel to drop this few line to you , and i will like you to contact me through my email (
) so that we can know each other and exchange our pictures, and we may become partner.
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vergelijk1 (#69,861)

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preggymira (#72,453)

fresh french fries.. love it… :D

Zinnia (#73,071)

I saw a food stand at a state fair last year and it said they were serving "Diabetic funnel cakes." What?

As a Minnesotan New York transplant, reading this actually made me cry a little at my desk.

What?! No gigantic turkey legs?? No funnel cake? Brings back yummy thoughts of any State Fair.

Chicken fried bacon? No thanks

Boy, do I miss the MN State Fair. Dad loves his mini donuts, so we'd always start out with those for breakfast, and work our way through the cheese curds, fries, and the milk booth among other fine fair delicacies. I haven't been for years…..
I live in Ohio now, and was shocked to find out this summer that my husband — born and raised here — had never been to the Ohio State Fair. While it can't compare to MN, I feel it is my duty to remedy that next summer!
Until then, off to all the little town fairs and festivals that the fall months bring. I'm so excited!!

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