ST. PAUL, Minn. — The smell washes over you in the parking lot, even before you reach the long lines that snake out in every direction at the ticket booth. The sweet, sugary aroma of cotton candy mixed with the earthy scent of manure.
Weird, but also strangely appropriate. This is a state fair, after all, where horses, swine and cows share the spotlight with deep-fried foods on a stick.
And not just any state fair, but one of the largest and best-attended expositions in the world. The Minnesota State Fair draws nearly 2 million people each year. Known as the Great Minnesota Get-Together, it’s the second-largest state fair in the country after Texas, though if you measure by daily attendance, it actually blows that gathering out of the water (Texas runs longer). It’s held each year the 12 days leading up to and through Labor Day.
Many come to this city on the banks of the Mississippi River for the fair’s agricultural and animal exhibits, including the CHS Miracle of Birth Center, where nearly 200 calves, lambs, goats and piglets will be born in front of curious eyes during the 12-day event. There’s also a daily parade, free entertainment, a huge horse show, talent competitions, games of chance and dozens of rides at the fair’s Midway.
Yet it’s also heaven for foodies, especially if you like your fair eats battered up and deep-fried.
There are more than 450 different dishes served at some 350 food stands and concessions. Even after eight hours on foot exploring, it was impossible for me to take it all in, let alone sample all the fair has to offer.
Sweet or savory, hot or cold, you can start with breakfast and easily work your way through lunch and dinner to a bedtime snack, sometimes on the same street in the fairgrounds, which stretches 320 acres.
At least 60 of those foods are served on a stick, even when doing so seems to defy the law of physics and logic.
Chocolate-dipped key lime pie or deep-fried apple pie on a skewer? Child’s play! Here, almost anything that can be shaped, smooshed, wrapped or stacked onto a stick is, including meat loaf, pizza, meatballs and spaghetti, fish, lamb and pork chops, teriyaki ostrich, bratwurst and cream cheese wontons. Oh, and giant, golden-brown Scotch eggs and tater tots interspersed with meatballs.
Among the 28 new foods this year are deep-fried Canadian lobster on a stick, pretzel curds and battered and deep-fried buckeyes, which made the deep-fried Twinkies and candy bars served next door seem oh-so-2003. I also watched an elderly woman wolf down a crispy creation called the Deep-Fried Breakfast-on-a-Stick. It’s hard to imagine a more caloric way to start your day, but she dug into the batter-fried pancakes stuffed with sausage, egg, Swiss and American cheeses and Canadian bacon with absolute abandon.
The variety is overwhelming and the portions are huge, suited more for sharing than scarfing on your own. However, solo is how most of the people I observed seemed to be enjoying the decadent, high-cal treats, save for the giant buckets of soft and gooey chocolate chip cookies that accounted for $2.4 million in sales at last year’s fair. They’re the No. 1 food, followed by corn dogs, ice cream and deep-fried cheese curds.
“Smaller portions so people could graze all day would be nice, but it just doesn’t work that way,” acknowledges Dennis Larson, who’s in charge of the fair’s vendors and new foods.
Unlike other big fairs, Mr. Larson says, Minnesota doesn’t go after the “shock foods” that verge on the ridiculous — say, the beef sundae served in Indiana or the fried butter balls that made Montana famous. Rather, the vendor committee looks for fun food that has “legs” that will stand up to Minnesotans’ persnickety taste buds. “Sometimes it’s a slippery slope, but we try to strike a balance” between shock and awe.
Foods that have a “how do they do it” or “why do they do it” appeal — deep-fried mac ’n cheese comes to mind — tend to slow the crowd down when no one wants to stand in line for more than a few minutes.
Not everything plays well in the Midwest, Mr. Larson explains. For instance, Rocky Mountain oysters wouldn’t fly here and crowds also weren’t too crazy about a camel-on-a-stick dish offered a few years ago.
“We also had a batter-dipped, deep-fried sweet corn that went away,” Mr. Larson says.
That said, guests in the past have enjoyed such oddities as deep-fried soda and bubble gum, and officials are seriously considering a filet of yak dish when a spot opens up (vendors have to reapply for a 12-day license each year).
Back in the day, many meals were eaten Sunday supper-style in the fair’s old-fashioned, sit-down Robbinsdale and Hamline Church dining halls The oldest food concession at the fair — it started as a lunch site in 1897 — Hamline this year trotted out one of the fair’s best new sweet treats, jello salad- and doughnut-flavored ice creams.
Today’s crowd, Mr. Larson notes, wants their food quick, fun and most of all, completely portable. Which might explain the lines in front of the Big Fat Bacon (on a stick) and Pickle Dog booths. For the uninitiated, that’s a dill pickle spear wrapped in cream cheese-slathered pastrami.
“Entrees are going away,” he says. “And there’s not as much breakfast,” he adds, even though gates open at 6 a.m. “People won’t wait for a corn dog like back when the fair started and farmers came out for breakfast.”
If you really want to eat like a Minnesotan, Sarah Harris, a 20-something I struck up a conversation with while I was charging my cell phone, says you have to try lefse, a thin flat potato pancake with Norwegian roots. Similar in looks to flour tortillas, the flatbreads are served warm from the oven, rolled up with your choice of butter, sugar and/or cinnamon. Simple, but delicious — and one of the few things on site that’s not fried, she notes with a laugh.
“Or the foot-long hot dog,” she continued. Born and raised in Minnesota, she said, “It’s the first thing I always get since I was a kid.”
“And you have to eat walleye,” added her friend, Mateo Willson, referring to the prized freshwater fish with thick, white fillets that populates the state’s many lakes.
I’d seen the signs. The popular fish is served at least three ways at the fair — battered and deep fried on a stick, stuffed with lettuce and cheese into tacos, or, new this year, mixed with sweet corn kernels and roasted red peppers and served atop cavatappi noodles with smoked Gouda sauce.
Too rich for my taste. But I did rather enjoy the buttered lefse and another very Minnesota treat — the $1 all-you-can-drink cup of white or chocolate milk.
Other local treats included bags of miniature doughnuts, which Mr. Larsen tells me were invented in Minnesota in the early 1940s and nearly as popular as the ubiquitous buckets of chocolate chip cookies.
Over one night and one day, I also enjoyed a Caribbean-style lobster roll (just OK), deep-fried corn fritters stuffed with crumbled blue cheese and served with tangy chimichurri (excellent, and so big I had leftovers for breakfast), beer gelato made with oatmeal stout (also excellent) and a prime rib taco (yum).
I’d been looking forward to a fantastic-looking chicken in a waffle, too (slathered in sausage gravy, with a malted milk ball in the bottom of the cone), and maybe also a hot-toasted waffle ice cream sandwich. But a sampling of four Minnesota craft beers at the Land of 10,000 Beers’ Craft Beer Hall exhibit followed by a ride high above the crowds in the fair’s 50-year-old Swiss-made Skyride had me feeling kind of queasy.
Dang. After surveying the fair’s online food finder, I’d also meant to try to deep-fried banana split made with lefse, and a new, feathery, cotton candy-like concoction of shaved ice cream called SnoRibbons. The server at the Blue Moon Dine-in Theater promised it would melt in my mouth, providing sweet relief not just from the late-August heat but also the hubbub of the crowd swirling around me.
Clutching my too-full stomach, I settled for a bite-sized sample.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-445-6211 or on Twitter @gtmckay.