Since I married a Minnesotan, I married into Midwestern food traditions like hot dish and pannekoeken. An annual part of that tradition includes The Great Minnesota Get-Together, the second-largest state fair in the country, and its bounty of culinary delights.
With her family, my wife and I have been going to the Minnesota State Fair religiously for about 10 years now, with the occasional pause due to life events. While the exuberance of my first visit—and the accompanying stamina that makes it possible to spend 12 hours at the fairgrounds eating fried things on a stick—wore off in subsequent years, we've refined an approach that enables us to eat like, well, Midwestern fairgoers without the resulting self-loathing. By sharing portions, we get to sample our standby favorites while throwing in the occasional new offering without experiencing a suicidal level of gastrointestinal regret and distress at the end of the day. Except beer. No one gets to share my beer.
In my old age, I've also imposed a couple of guidelines that empower my Fair experience and, most importantly, avoid distraction. Notably, I tend to avoid polarizing stunt food or anything that I could find at my local Brooklyn street fair. I've had deep-fried Oreos (meh) and Twinkies (terrible), and there's no reason to waste precious stomach real estate with pedestrian funnel cakes or curly fries. I try to focus on items that are uniquely Minnesotan or Midwestern, the sort of destination dishes that I associate solely with the Fair and can get only once a year.
The first thing I ate was a Pepto Bismol caplet, both as a preventative measure and as a way to combat a troubling stomach ailment that befell me upon arriving in Minnesota this year. Luckily, I'm happy to report that I rebounded like a champ and consumed the following items during a six-hour stretch, ranked in ascending order of quality, with the accompanying order in which they were consumed. As with any ranking, these are completely subjective yet objectively correct.
17. Caprese salad, from Minnesota Wine Country (consumed ninth)
I never thought I'd begin any list associated with the State Fair and food with a Caprese salad, but here we are. While fresh and tasty, this was totally superfluous and out of place. Not bad, but not fried, not really local-feeling, and not on a stick. The shock of its mere presence and its healthfulness almost qualify it as a stunt food. Considering the Minnesota Wine Country menu also included wine-fried brie, spicy wino wings, and a pork-belly slider, this was a bit of a miss. My wife was a big fan, and I suppose it could be argued that a salad is a nutritional necessity in a long day of eating fried dough, but to me it was a fish out of water.
16. Lemonade, from Cheese On A Stick stand (consumed 15th)
Nothing against fresh-squeezed lemonade, but I like a bit more tang in mine, and this entry was a little too sweet for me. It was like getting a bottle of water: You're thirsty, it's there, you move on.
15. Chocolate malt, from Dairy Goodness (consumed 13th)
Procured from the Dairy Barn at the Fair—home to the Butter Busts!—this was a Very Good chocolate malt. However, I should note that I'm more of a savory guy than a sweets guy, so even a Very Good chocolate malt is going to have a tough time ranking very high on my list. I'm also pretty bad at getting the timing right when I consume malts: The first few pulls at the straw are a cheek-cramping effort, so I end up resorting to the spoon and waiting until the malt melts into an unsatisfying soup. I always feel like I've missed the window of optimal consistency, and that's just too much pressure for me.
14. Red wine sampler, from Minnesota Wine Country (consumed 10th)
I'm not holding the Caprese salad against Minnesota Wine Country (much), but Minnesota wine is going to have a tough row to hoe under the best of circumstances. The Mill Street Red from Cannon River Winery (Cannon Falls, Minn.) was quite drinkable, but the Saint Croix Marquette and Northern Marquette (St. Croix and Nortnern Vineyards, respectively, both from Stillwater, Min...) were pretty tannic and had rough finishes. I was in the middle of enjoying a Leinenkugel's Original (see below) at the time, so my palate just wasn't looking for something reminiscent of a North Fork red blend. On the other hand, the red wine sampler gets bonus points for the fact that the samples were served in a cardboard cutout of the state of Minnesota.
13. White wine sampler, from Minnesota Wine Country (consumed 11th)
I liked these white wines better, and perhaps it had to do with the fact that white wine is more suited to a muggy afternoon in August. The Frontenac Gris from Parley Lake Winery (Waconia, Minn.) was crisp and refreshing, and I could see flopping down in Prospect Park with a bottle on a nice summer day. Similarly, the Spring Flight of Falconer Vineyards (Red Wing, Minn.) was a quaffable and cool offering, while the La Crescent of Garvin Heights (also Red Wing, Minn.) was too syrupy and sweet for the setting. Might have made a nice dessert wine, but I'd had my first dessert like two hours earlier.
12. Vanilla ice cream, Dairy Goodness (consumed 14th)
We got this for my daughter at the same time as the chocolate malt, and like most four-year-olds, she needed help finishing it. Since I'm morally opposed to wafer cones, and it was for a four-year-old, we had it dumped in a cup. Not sure why, but this plain old vanilla ice cream beat the chocolate malt. It was full of rich vanilla flavor without being French vanilla, and super creamy, and everything that Mr. Softee isn't. Wholesome.
11. Deep-fried cheese curds, from the Mouse Hole (consumed eighth)
Yep, I'm as surprised as anyone at this ranking—fried cheese curds are always a Top 5 contender—but this has everything to do with timing. This was where portion-sharing had its drawback, because by the time I tried a golden-fried lump of "squeak," it was no longer warm, and had lost much of the texture that makes these things great. But, like pizza and sex, even when a fried cheese curd is bad, it's pretty good. And better than a Caprese salad.
10. Corn dog, from Big Dog Corn Dogs (consumed first)
Traditionally, I always start my Fair off with a corn dog. Some may call this pedestrian, but to me it just feels right. However, I second-guessed myself on this one: I bypassed my usual stop at Poncho's in favor of Big Dog's, and maybe regretted not sticking with my old standby. Billed as the only all-beef corn dog at the fair, it was a good corn dog, a fresh, juicy hot dog encased within a decent batter that isn't as fluffy as Poncho's. Consensus says this dog is better than Poncho's, but the batter wasn't. But, let's face it: A corn dog, while a Fair favorite, was never going to be No. 1.
9. S'more beer, from Giggles' Campfire Grill (consumed 4th)
What, to the naked eye, looks like a revolting exercise in stunt food was surprisingly good. Probably because it's just Summit Porter in a graham-cracker-and-chocolate-rimmed cup with a marshmallow floating in it. The sweetness of the rim was great with the porter, even if it got a bit icky as we passed the cup around. Rookie of the Year contender, hands down. No one ate the marshmallow.
8. Mini donuts, from Tom Thumb Donuts (consumed sixth)
Served hot in a paper bag, these half-dollar-sized beauties were soft and fluffy and dusted with sugar crystals that got in my hair as my daughter ate them while sitting on my shoulders. A hint of cinnamon that would have been perfect with milk, but at the time we were seeking more beer.
7. Leinenkugel's Original, from Leinie's Lodge (consumed seventh)
I've never quite understood why they give a Wisconsin beer so much mindshare at the Minnesota State Fair, but my Fair-going experience revolves around the Leinie's Lodge and its 20 ounces of refreshment. Situated next to a bandshell and offering a sea of custom Adirondack chairs for weary aggies, it's an oasis in a desert of woodland camo, Vikings purple, and adult onset diabetes. We were lucky enough to snag a few chairs, circle them like wagons, and enjoy both a parade on the adjacent street and the Cajun music stylings of Kevin Naquin & the Ossun Playboys at the bandshell. Given that we were assaulting the Fair with six children under the age of five, the Leinie's Lodge was a godsend.
6. Summit Pale Ale, from Giggles' Campfire Grill (consumed third)
Hey, I have to give the Minnesota beer top-beer-billing. Summit is my first beer of the Fair each year, occupying a traditional place in the pantheon like the corn dog. Giggles' had a dizzying selection of local and national beers, plus I waited until after noon, so yay me.
5. Roast corn, from the Corn Roast stand (consumed 16th)
Roasted in the husk, like it's supposed to be done, and served with butter, salt, and pepper. Hot off the flames, perfectly sweet and toothsome, the embodiment of summer with white and yellow kernels. Plus, the Corn Roast stand actively encouraged patrons to recycle their corn cobs (add your joke in the comments!).
4. Pork chop on a stick, from the pork chops and chicken stand (consumed 12th)
Another annual favorite that I look forward to, and it never disappoints. A simple, surprisingly juicy pork chop where the only stunt is that it's served on a wooden stick, with a tasty salt-and-pepper-dominated rub. Probably one of the most healthful options at the Fair, and amazingly consistent given the number of chops they crank out.
3. Mini Cinnies, from Cinnie Smith's (consumed fifth)
Well worth the trek to the northern reaches of the fairgrounds, across from the Pet Center (where I get dog treats on a stick for my mutts back home). Served warm, these mini cinnamon rolls come with a side of sweet cream-cheese frosting. Perfect for sharing and being considered breakfast, they're rich, moist, and appropriately kissed with just the right amount of gooey, syrupy topping. So much for me not having a sweet tooth.
2. Walleye cakes, from Giggles' Campfire Grill (consumed 2nd)
In keeping with my desire to seek out local favorites, walleye anything is a go-to for me at the Fair. These were terrific: lightly breaded, innovatively bound together using a combo of bread crumbs and wild rice, and served with a zesty, smoky sauce. I could have eaten four of these. Rumor has it that most of the walleye served in Minnesota is actually from Canada due to a falling walleye population in Mille Lacs, but I don't cotton to loose talk and gossip.
1. Deep fried cheese curds, from The Mouse Hole (consumed 17th)
I finished up my Fair smorgasbord by returning to the Mouse Hole, where I completed my first Minnesota State Fair in 2005, avenging the cold cheese curd that I'd had before. What a difference a fresh, hot order makes. There are fried cheese curds all over the fairgrounds, but the Mouse Hole always wins for me. It's an unbeatable combination of textures: crunchy, juicy, chewy and squeaky, ending with a wonderfully salty white cheese finish. I strongly advise against tackling an entire order by yourself, but that won't stop you from trying. Luckily, my daughter spilled a good third of the order, which was both tragic and a relief. Because it was time to go home.
An informal poll of my family and fellow fairgoers found some consensus among the Top 5 as their favorites, with an outlier or two.
- My wife: roast corn
- Mother-in-law: pork chop on a stick
- Sister-in-law: poutine
- Brother-in-law: chili cheese dog (!!!)
- Other brother-in-law: deep-fried cheese curds
- Other sister-in-law: pork chop on a stick
As with any trip to the Fair, there were some notable dishes that I just flat-out missed. I could have spent all day at Giggles', and should have tried the walleye mac & cheese. I skipped the best-selling Fair favorites at the French fry stand and Sweet Martha's Cookies, and given that Minnesota is the nation's leading turkey producer, I'm disappointed that I didn't have a turkey leg, even one not wrapped in bacon. But there are only so many hours in the day and cubic centimeters in my stomach, and there's always next year. Always.