State fairs are central hubs for culinary experiences. Home cooks from all across the state compete to see who could make the best apple pie, chocolate chip cookies, or chili con carne. Food trucks from neighboring towns all flock to the fairground to sell their food; often deep-fried and served on a stick. Craft breweries also pour some of their most coveted liquid, so some state fairs manage to rival the largest beer festivals in that particular state. The Minnesota State Fair is the biggest state fair in the United States, attracting over two million attendees annually. Only open from late August into early September, a visit is an opportunity to walk the largest fairground in the world, and also sample some of the most interesting fair food in America.
The gates for the Minnesota State Fair open at seven in the morning. It seems fitting to start the day with a traditional breakfast food; frosted flakes. In this case however, the sugar coated cereal serves as the coating for chicken tenders skewered on a stick and then deep fried. These frosted flakes chicken tenders are sold by Netterfields, a family owned business that has been selling fairground favorites like corn dogs, turkey legs, and chicken wings for almost a hundred years. The thinly cut chicken tender is perfectly crisp, and mildly seasoned so that the sweetness from the frosted flakes perfectly compliments the signature crunch.
From here, the Brewed in Minnesota exhibition put on by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild is the next stop. For many brew pubs within the state, this annual event represents their only opportunity to sell beer beyond their own premises. As such, they take the opportunity to make incredible first impressions, in some cases tapping casks that have been maturing for several months. Fruited wheat beers might be the best expression of Minnesota brewing, since they represent fresh fruit and grain, two different agricultural bounties of the state brought together in well crafted beer. Options are diverse, and include wheatwines matured in rye whisky casks with heirloom apples, witbiers brewed with apricots, or wild fermented gose-style ale infused with locally grown raspberries. Beyond these wheat beers however, there is a lot of everything; from crisp pilsners to creamy dessert stouts.
After a few beers, a sandwich seems ideal. Several vendors at the state fair sell amazing hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, and philly cheese steaks. I opted instead for a spamwich, simply because I’d never seen it before, and someone recommended it to me. It was simply a slice of grilled spam served in a burger bun with cheese and diced onion, and it was surprisingly satisfying and very similar to a fast food cheeseburger.
From here, it’s over to Bayou Bob’s Gator Shack for some alligator meat. Alligators live in the SouthEast United States, in places like Louisiana and Florida, but even there the meat is relatively rare. In Minnesota, it is even rarer. Bayou Bob’s serves alligator sausages, as well as breaded and fried tail meat with tater tots. The tots are served with a Cajun aioli, and despite being shaped like alligators, they’re not referred to as gator tots. The deep fried alligator is interesting, and it has a taste close to pork but a texture similar to sailfish or shark. A more common game animal at the Minnesota State Fair is buffalo meat, since many farmers in the region rear herds of these animals alongside their other livestock. No live buffalo are present at the state fair, but there are goats, llamas, and cattle. The importance of cattle farmers in the Minnesota State Fair can be seen at the livestock shows, where a hundred thousand foot structure holds over a thousand heads of cattle, but also at a prominent stand selling all you can drink milk, and in the annual tradition of crowning a reigning princess to represent the dairy families of the region, and carving her likeness out of butter.
After eating the alligator bites with tater tots, the spamwich, and the chicken tender, it’s time to decide on a dessert. This is no easy feat considering that the options for ice cream alone are almost endless. There are also mouth watering options like french toast bites made from ciabatta and slathered in a berry sauce, and red velvet funnel cake with a cream cheese frosting. I decided on deep-fried cheesecake, since cheesecake is arguably the ultimate sweet sliced snack, and deep-fried food is a state fair staple. I expected cheesecake rolled into a ball, with the graham cracker crust used as the breading. In actuality, it was an entire slice wrapped in pie crust, deep-fried, and then dusted with powdered sugar. Delicious, decadent, and just like the spamwich, definitely something that I would probably never eat again.
For the rest of the day, I visited some of the agricultural related exhibits and enjoyed some of the entertainment. There are entertainers all across the fairgrounds, but the main shows at the Grand Stand require a ticket that could be purchased on the day. Performers at the Grand Stand include music groups that have had multiple hits, so the state fair manages to rival a small music festival or even one of the smaller stages at a large festival like Lollapalooza and the music goes late into the night.
By this time, most people have already left the state fair but it’s still relatively busy. The air is rich with the aroma of hot oil, and melted cheese. This delicious smell is coming from booths selling deep-fried cheese curds, all of which are operating at full capacity. Several vendors sell fried cheese curds, but the most famous is The Mouth Trap. Their cheese is delivered daily from a Wisconsin dairy, and they sell over five thousand pounds of fried cheese on every day of the state fair. Crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, with all the goodness of cheese throughout.
I wish I could have spent some more time at the Minnesota State Fair, however the single day here was a day well spent. I enjoyed local beer and fairground food, while seeing what the largest state fair in the United States is like.