Early on a Thursday morning in late August, as the sun rises over a muggy Twin Cities, a slumbering animal comes to life on 320 acres in St. Paul. Crowds wait outside entrance gates to be the first ones to view the largest pumpkins, witness the birth of lambs and calves, navigate the wares, and be endlessly entertained.
The mass of humanity that pulses up and down the streets for 12 days, rain or shine or oppressive heat, comes to the Minnesota State Fair for any number of reasons, but chief among those is to answer the most pressing question of all: How much deep-fried food can I consume in one day?
Chef Matt and I only attend the State Fair every other year, partly because of the price tag and partly because the consumption of so much fair food makes my heart stop a little in protest. We love fair food, which is best eaten while sitting on a curb somewhere, engaged in the best people-watching of the year, but after one particularly ugly fair-food binge a few years ago (and the harsh realization that alas, we are no longer 18), we have trimmed our fair fare to a highlight reel.
There are three non-negotiables on our list: corn dogs, roasted sweet corn, and Sweet Martha's cookies. Corn dogs, that quintessential fair food, are best when the fried batter is still hot and chewy, drizzled with mustard that inevitably lands on your shirt, shorts and shoes. The roasted corn, plunged into hot butter, is nothing less than a Midwestern confection. And Sweet Martha's cookies, always our final stop and always eaten with cold milk, are warm and gooey and piled impossibly high in a cone cup, or even better, served by the dozens in a bucket.
Aside from the Big Three, we vary our food choices to hit a solid representation of the fair's offerings. We have eaten, at various times, deep-fried pickles, hot dish on a stick, spaghetti and meatballs on a stick, mini donuts, deep-fried risotto balls, Australian battered potatoes with ranch and cheese sauce, and cheese curds. The infinity of food at the fair and our flexible list of snack requirements are all part of the fun for us biennial visitors: will we eat alligator on a stick in 2012? deep-fried candy bars in 2014?
The State Fair is, at worst, a strain on your wallet and your arteries. At best, it is a jolly 12-day block party where all diets are shelved, no one can stop comparing foods consumed, and the food groups descend into two categories: fried and not fried. But leave your food guilt at the door, Minnesotans, and eat a deep-fried pickle in the alternate reality that is the State Fair, where there is no shame attached to eating cookies out of a bucket. Such blissful freedom won't be back for 353 days.