I’m a transplant to Minnesota. I grew up mostly in central Ohio, spent time on the East Coast, then settled in the Twin Cities just over twenty years ago with my husband. Despite pleas from family, we have no plans to leave. I love many things about my adopted state—the lakes, the political landscape, the thriving arts community—but nothing that inspires my fanatic devotion more than the Minnesota State Fair.
The first year I moved here I didn’t go. The next year, friends showed us their favorite things about the fair, like the butter sculptures in the Dairy Goodness building. Most of what we did, though, was eat. Our first trip included many things we still eat today: mini donuts, roast corn, French fries, 1919 root beer, and fried cheese curds. I think those are what cemented my love for the fair in general, and fair food in particular. I’ve been every year since, even the year right after my older son was born, in the two hour interval between nursing sessions.
Our food list has changed over the years, with only a few things remaining constant. Each year I scan the early reports from trusted food critics. I’ve read everything Rick Nelson from the Star Tribune and Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl have ever written about the fair, and have gladly seen the rise of new fair-food voices, like the team at the Growler (formerly Heavy Table), Eater’s Joy Summers, Stephanie and Drew at Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, and Jason DeRusha at Minnesota Monthly. When I check out the new foods, I pay particular attention to who’s making it. Some vendors are reliably terrific (Farmer’s Union), some are hit and miss (Blue Moon) and some I don’t bother with (Green Mill, and the questionably named Shanghaied Henri’s). But even the critics diverge, sometimes widely, as shown in this grid at MinnPost. Remember, your mileage may vary. If something doesn’t sound like your thing, it probably isn’t, no matter how the food critics rave. Then again, one of our family favorites this year was something none of us expected, so it’s nice to gamble on delight. That surprise, in my 21st year of fair-going, is why I share with you some of my accumulated fair advice.
Tip #1: Go early, both in the run of the fair, and in the day. Most years our family goes on Thrifty Thursday, the first day of the fair, and we buy tickets in advance at Cub to save even a little more on entry and fairway tickets. Also, going early in the morning (but not too early; many vendors don’t open till 8am), gets you a seat instead of standing room on the bus with…
Tip #2: Park and Ride. Free. Easy. There can be some long waits, and some snafus, but still, a winner.
Food #1: Fried Pickles with ranch dipping sauce. You can spend the extra money to get the fried pickles with cream cheese, but I don’t think it’s worth it.
Food #2: Carousel Pork Chop on a Stick. Breakfast of Champions
Foods #3 and #4: NEW! Blueberry Key Lime Pie and the BLT with Egg, both at the nicely updated-for-increased-traffic Farmer’s Union. My 13 and 16yo sons were skeptical about the cost-to-size ratio of the pie, but there was not a crumb left. The BLT was delicious last year, but improved with the runny egg, sourced from Wrenshall’s own Locally Laid.
Tip #3: Creative Activities Building. Jams, baked, goods, quilts, and other crafts.
Tip #4: Dairy Goodness building to see the butter sculptures being carved. This young woman went on to be crowned Princess Kay!
Food #5: Divisive. The grilled peach with herbed goat cheese from the Produce Exchange. My 16yo and I shared and loved last year. This year, my husband declared it tasted like “wrong pizza” and was the worst thing he’d ever had at the fair (and he’s a fan of Spam, so interpret that as you will), and my 13yo was upset that I smeared the goat cheese everywhere. Takeaway: maybe try the greek yogurt topping, or just the plain grilled peach next time.
Food #6: NEW. The No-Baloney Coney at Mancini’s. A deliciously fatty sausage on grilled toast with a bright, crunchy pickled topping. We debated about getting this or their excellent Bomba sandwich, which also has the giardiniera sauce, but decided to try the new item.
Tip #5: Crop Art in the Ag/Hort building. Seeing the seed art is one of my favorite things, yet, the line is not regulated. It’s a long, slow moving line of people to view the art up close. But others crowd the edges and butt in, slowing things down further. Stay in line, or butt in? I believe in order and kindness, so we stayed in line. I think it’s worth the wait to get an unobstructed view.
Foods #7, 8, 9, and 10: Tom Thumb’s Mini Donuts, 1919 root beer, Fresh French Fries, Mouth Trap Fried Cheese Curds. Conundrum! Our fair plan has always been to get the smallest, least expensive size and share it. This year, though, was the first year we had two teen boys. All these items had us staring longingly at the bottom in double-quick time. I think we may need to upgrade our sizes on these State Fair classics.
Food #11: NEW. Dessa’s Night Drive, her new flavor by Izzy’s, is a whirlwind of flavors and textures that go great together: “Bizzy Coffee’s House Blend Cold Brew and Izzy’s cream base, chocolate-covered espresso chips, toffee crunch, finished off with a hint of cardamom.” Finished is what this was, like the previous several foods, all too quickly.
Food #12: Turkey to Go Sandwich. Juicy, seasoned meat on a soft bun. Cravable, devourable, and delicious.
Food #13: Surprise! In a radical departure from past years, we got the cookies! There are a few State Fair things that others swear by that I usually avoid. One is the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book. It encourages you to get what there’s a coupon for instead of what might be the best option, e.g., there is no reason to get a frappe at the Farmers Union stand when there are several outstanding other foods. Also, Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies. The cookies are only OK. I can make better at home. Yet there’s something about the overfilled cones and tubs that sends people into a frenzy. This year, I leaned into the goodness. Yes, I can make better ones at home, but as they say in real estate: location, location, location. Warm cookies + cold milk @ the fair = heaven.
Tip #6: Browsing in the West End Market. Hats! T-shirts! Fun weird stuff!
Food #14: Bigger Surprise! One of the most lauded new foods last year, I skipped the Mangonada Shaved Ice from the Minnesnowi’i stand in the West End. Mango shaved ice with spicy and savory sprinkles, mango boba pearls and a tamarind straw sounded like a literal hot mess. But people I trusted kept assuring me otherwise, so I decided to try it this year, though the skeptical teens didn’t think it was a good idea. Then they “helped” me finish it, fighting over every last flavor bubble. (We did agree the tamarind straw was unnecessary.)
And, that was a wrap. The elder son had a soccer game, so we left. But, my younger son and I got arm stamps, and went back a few hours later for a Bonus Round that included extensive rabbit admiration and baby animal ogling
Oh, and a few extra foods:
Food #15: Mancini’s Bomba Sandwich: a great alternative to Turkey to Go, with seasoned meat plus cheese and that giardiniera topping! Food #16: Warm cheesecake tarts from Lulu’s Public House. Delicious, but I was glad for the cooler weather. Warm and super sweet isn’t always a winner at the fair. And the younger teen went for the Food #17: Pebbles and Bam Bam waffle from Nordic Waffles, with fruity pebbles and melted Reese’s Cups. He said it was good, but not a must eat. Even he, apparently, has limits.
What we missed: I couldn’t get takers for either the Fine Arts building or the Eco Experience, though those have been popular picks in the past. Ditto for roast corn, Farmers Union treats on a stick (Mocha, Black Gold, Chai, and Mango), all of which are delicious, sausage from My Sausage Sister n Me, and Pronto Pups. And the boys were no longer interested in the River Ride, the Sky Ride, or even the Go Cars. It was a strange, disorienting year, but a fascinating and delicious one, all the more so for the boys increasing interest in what we did and didn’t do.