Minnesota State Fair Prep—#5: Fair Food Made Simple (and Some Thoughts on Exercise)

August 16, 2009


Above: Sketch of a piece of salt water taffy, from my 2003 State Fair Journal. Watersoluble fountain pen ink on pre-painted (acrylic) 300 lb. Fabriano Uno watercolor paper.

This post continues as series on Minnesota State Fair Preparation begun on August 12.

Let’s just begin by saying that there are foods you eat to promote the health of your body and there are other foods you eat because you are compelled by flavor, smell, texture, sense memory,  desire, or a sense of daring do. You’ll find a lot of the latter at the Minnesota State Fair. Most of it will be deep fat fried, and much of it will be presented to you on a stick. (Hey, it’s an easy way to eat something without getting messy—don’t knock it. And in case you haven’t guessed it, the Fair is Carnivore Land.)

Are there healthy things for you to eat at the Fair. Yep. But WHY? You can eat those things when you return home. And for all the days of your life, until next year’s Fair.

It helps to have some boundaries and goals, or rules or guidelines for yourself so you don’t get sucked down by the undertow of edibles pulling from every nook and cranny of the Fair. I suggest the following—after years of research and practice. These guidelines assume you are coming to the Fair to sketch, but you could just as well be coming to see the exhibits.

1. Exercise hard the morning of your visit. With any luck your strenuous workout might just suppress your appetite a tad. At the very least a morning workout will keep you stepping lively between food vendors.

2. Eat a normal and healthy, and not large breakfast, enough to keep you going without sugar crashes so you can get some work (sketching or arts and crafts viewing) done at the Fair.

3. Visit exhibits, sketch, go on rides, etc. before you start eating. In fact I recommend that you try to get at least a couple hours of activity in before you start putting that mood altering food into your body.

4. Keep drinking water throughout your visit. This will keep you hydrated and better able to deal with the effects of all that fat and sugar—you’ll eat less of it.

5. Do not go to the Fair with anyone who is a health nut—he will preach sanctimoniously at you for 3 or 4 hours while you snack. He will hound you with lists of reasons why you shouldn’t have that freshly cut, deep fat fried, and salted potato chip; cluck pompously while you savor your second Corn Dog; and tap his toes impatiently while you stand in line for a large glass of freshly squeezed, sugary-tart lemonade. Then as you leave the Fair he’ll purchase the super-sized sack of Tom Thumb Donuts and gobble them up (not offering you one) while the two of you walk back to the car. Sadly, no lightening bolt will strike him down. (People tell me there is such a thing as Karma, but if so, in my experience it’s slow acting.) You will have to listen to him complain about how you are responsible for his capitulation. (Don't try to talk to him about Free Will.) And then there is the uncomfortable drive home! Just avoid the whole episode.

6. Start your eating adventure with something fatty—I think a Corn Dog is ideal. It sort of coats your stomach and provides an essential building block for layers to come (always think of Fair food as layers).

Note: A word on Corn Dogs and Pronto Pups. One is good (the Corn Dog) the other bad (the Pronto Pup). Both are hot dogs made of non-identifiable cuts of meat, on a stick, dipped in a batter and deep fried. The difference is the Corn Dog is a cornmeal batter and the result is a fluffy fat and sweet coating that is perfectly offset by the mystery meat’s saltiness. The Pronto Pup is a wheat batter and is more finicky to cook, often served undercooked which makes them soggy and oily. At the best of times they are too smooth and bland to be of interest to any real carnivore. Look for a Corn Dog stand with a line of waiting patrons as the workers will be cooking new Corn Dogs to feed the demand and you won’t get one that’s been sitting under a heat lamp. Avoid oversized Corn Dogs because they often don’t get cooked to the same degree of perfection. There’s just too much there. Have a regular Corn Dog, walk about, have another regular Corn Dog later, as you head back to your car for instance.

7. If you are going to get Cheese Curds (and it’s Minnesota so you actually have to eat these; it’s the LAW) then go to the Food Building. Stand in the queue with everyone else. It’s part of the Fair experience. Test gingerly on your first bite because you do not want to burn out your mouth and ruin your ability to taste everything else you’ll eat.

8. You’ll need to buy some Salt Water Taffy. This stand is located on the outside of the Food Building, across from the Skyride. You want first of all to watch the taffy being made. There’s a machine that pulls it and another to cut and wrap it. You might like black walnut and mint. Knock yourself out. I recommend vanilla, butter rum, banana, and strawberry. Get 6 pieces of each, that’s 24, a nice size. Or get the larger deals and save some for later. Buy a pack of 48 pieces for a friend (just don't tell them you've done this until the end of the week, in case you eat this too).

Note: I recommend that you purchase your Salt Water Taffy on your way out of the Fairgrounds so that you don’t have to carry the large plastic container (or reusable tub if you spring for that) around with you. Besides, too much taffy can spoil your taste buds for other fine delights. And chewing on taffy as you walk back to your car just might restore your blood sugar balance. (The Taffy stand used to be inside the Food Building which closes before the Fairgrounds close in the evening. Now that the taffy vendor is outside the Food Building you can get late taffy!)

Note: Please know that this Salt Water Taffy is NOT LIKE ANY OTHER YOU HAVE EVER EATEN. You should get some of this stuff because you will think you have died and gone to your reward (wherever that is and I sure hope they have fried foods on a stick there). No taffy sold anywhere—any resort, gift shop, etc.—is anything but a pale cousin to this chewy confection wrapped in a simple square of waxed paper. Sigh.

9. If you want a cinnamon roll (and of course you do because everyone knows Cinnabuns are crap and since my grandmother died without passing her recipe along you have to seek out a fix somewhere) then I recommend the little stand across the street from the Coliseum and the Cow Barn. It used to be that the bakery in the Food Building had the best, but they changed hands and aren’t as good. The small corner store isn’t the best I’ve had, but they are better than the Fair alternatives and Cinnabuns.

10. Seek out the Dole Whip station. Frozen fruit slurry whipped up into a creamy confection like soft-serve ice cream. It’s non-dairy and darn tasty (strawberry). It’s also down the road from my favorite Spin Art booth.

11. Fresh French fries, fresh onion rings, fresh potato chips. Various places sell these things and you can work your way through the Food Building first.

12. Buckets of Chocolate Chip Cookies. I’d pass. They aren’t as delicious and chewy as the ones I make and the buckets are so big you really have to be with friends to share. Skip it and make some cookies at home next week for yourself.

13. Heritage square has turkey drumsticks on offer: ‘nuf said.

14. Dick always has an elephant ear. This is a large piece of yeast-raised dough squeezed out in a spiral pattern into boiling fat, fried, flipped, fried some more, and then tossed with cinnamon and sugar. I know why he likes it and I don’t complain when he stands in line to get one (corner of the outside of the Food Building as you move towards Snelling from the Taffy Stand), but to me it’s just wasted calories and the dough isn’t complex enough to interest me.

15. Deep Fried Chocolate Bars. Well, if your favorite bar is on offer this might be for you. Mine never is and I know this would be a dangerous item for me to eat because the oil and chocolate fat will clash.

16. Gelato. Get the real stuff which I believe is down the road from the Butterfly house. The Pistachio is, well Pistachio.

17. If you want a sandwich seek out a restaurant that maintains a State Fair booth, it will be more interesting and engaging. (Again, this is too real a food group for me, so I’ll pass—on to another Corn Dog.)

18. Walleye—Food Building. It’s Minnesota, as I’ve said—it’s the law, you have to eat this. It’s good.

19. Deep Fried Vegetables. If there’s a line at the booth, go for it. It’s almost healthy. (Test bite to avoid burning your mouth!)

20. Roasted Corn on the Cob. What can I say. Get plenty of paper towels. (Having wipes handy would be a good thing too to clean up your face!)

There are probably 10,000 things I’ve forgotten to mention. And I probably have overlooked your favorite item. This list will give you an idea of what’s on offer foodwise that is.

My Power Eating Tip
Buy a helping of anything that strikes your fancy and eat only a portion of it. Share it with a friend, or toss it away. (Except for Salt Water Taffy, just save it and eat it another day.) Just because you bought something doesn’t mean you have to eat it all. The helpings are actually too large anyway. No one can eat an entire Scotch Egg. It’s a science fact!

Things to Avoid

Scotch Eggs. If you have to ask, well you just don’t want to know.

Deep Fried Twinkies. The first year they introduced this I bit. I mean what’s not to like. When I was young these were spongy cake with whipped lard filling. YUM. I grew up with these as treats. Sad thing is they use hydrogenated vegetable oil now (I think—they just don’t taste the same and I haven’t eaten them in years). This filling in the Twinkie conflicts with the fat used to deep fat fry it. You end up with a soggy, oily mess served with your choice of cheap chocolate or berry topping. Run away.

Chocolate Covered Bacon. It sounds like a good idea, bacon-anything. (The Fair is also not a good place to keep Kosher in case you’re wondering.) The first piece is actually interesting. The second piece (servings come with several) is still tasty but the salt is starting to conflict with the chocolate taste. By the third piece you’re dying for a drink of water and you realize you just ate too much really crappy chocolate because you were unable to resist the bacon. (Nothing will upset your stomach more than really crappy chocolate).

Thick Cut Bacon on a Stick. This is actually the perfect food, the right blend of fat and meat cooked to edible perfection, served on a stick so you don't have to get your fingers greasy, but it is over priced for what you get. Pass.

Beer, Ice Cream, Cotton Candy, etc.—you can, if you so desire, get all this stuff at home, all year long. Watch the Cotton Candy being made if you need a blast from the past, but all this stuff is filling and BORING.

A Word about Coupon Books
In general I don't recommend getting a coupon book. The coupons are always so much off one item IF you buy it with another, or two for one, you get the idea—you need to be with someone who can match your eating proclivities stride for stride, and still buy a lot of stuff you probably wouldn't want. If you're with a lot of people then you can buy one of these books and divide up the coupons.

Don’t Kid Yourself
I just want to go on record as pointing out that no matter how much you walk up and down the streets in the Fairgrounds, even if you jog a bit, you will not work off even the calories of one fried mushroom. Let go of that conceit. You’ll have to pay for all this later by renewed dedication to your regular foodstuffs and exercise routine.

Pre-Fair Eating Prep
Do not, under any circumstances buy into the myth that it’s better if you train to eat Fair food. There is no training for this. (In fact some of us are naturally gifted.) You’ll only stretch your stomach and gain weight eating things that aren’t all that interesting. Just go to the Fair, make your choices and STOP when you’re full.

Good luck. Remember to pace yourself.

  1. Reply

    On second glance your sketch is obviously of salt water taffy and it makes me wonder what kind of a twisted person I am to have arrived at my first impression. It looked like a dead chicken…maybe killed mafia execution style, with it’s blindfolded head laying pointed toward you (just the beak sticking out from the blindfold) and it’s bound feet pointing away.
    Saltwater taffy is a much more pleasant vision.

    • Julianna Mahley
    • August 16, 2009

    What is Cheese Curd? Does it look like cottage cheese? Is it hot or cold? Could it burn your mouth because of the spices or because of heat? I lived in Duluth for one year, but I never heard of cheese curd. It sounds Amish to me.

    • mary hanson
    • August 16, 2009

    How funny! I saw the chicken first, too. You’ve peaked my interest on the taffy, though. I would have completely disregarded it as the same old resort gift shop goo. Now I will definitely have to seek some out.

    • elizabeth
    • August 16, 2009


    This post was such a delight to read! (It made me want to drive from Kansas City to Minnesota just to go to the fair!)

    Bon Appetite!

  2. Reply

    I am so pleased to know someone who takes the Fair, and Fair EATING, as seriously as I do! I take the week off every year for this, the high-point of the summer holidays. But this will be the FIRST year I sketch it too! Thanks for the inspiration.
    Jen Schultz

    • KarinH
    • August 16, 2009

    Hi Roz,
    I just love the tips (and your blog in general) – what a pity we do not have a state fair here (or maybe the Octoberfest could count ?). Anyway regarding the sketch – I have no clue what Salt Water Taffy is – but I definitely see the dead chicken !!
    Karin from around Munich

    • Roz
    • August 16, 2009

    Julianna, I am mortified. In my writing I try to be clear about things and explain things that everyone might not know, and here I just went totally negligent and assumed everyone knew what a cheese curd is. Thank you for calling this to my attention.

    Cheese curds are essentially deep fat fried cheese. YUM! Well actually you can get them as simply cheese curds at other places but at the Fair they are fried.

    You can read about cheese curds and FRIED cheese curds (with photos) at this link on Wikipedia.
    There is nothing Amish about them—these are way too decadent.

    And I think you’ll agree, once you see the photo of the fried ones, how these hot bits of batter and cheese could so easily burn your mouth!!!

    But the risks are totally worth it.

    Thanks for writing in and making me clarify this. Many apologies!

    • Roz
    • August 16, 2009

    Mary, You’ve lived in Minnesota how long and you’ve never had taffy at the fair???? YOU MUST HAVE SOME. It is the best. Nothing is as good as this.

    • Roz
    • August 16, 2009

    Elizabeth, you totally need to come to the Fair! If you get up here on September 1 you can even be part of the sketch out!!!!

    • Roz
    • August 16, 2009

    Jen, the Fair is very serious work for many of us! You are in good company. I look forward to seeing you at the sketch out! (The Fair is the my vacation week too!)

    • Roz
    • August 16, 2009

    Karin, I am laughing so hard. Another dead chicken spotter. I should just give in and relabel this piece I’m thinking! SO where is the head?

    Anyway, Salt Water Taffy is a sugar and water confection that is heated to soft “ball” stage (or something like that—when you are cooking sugar there are different levels of hardness you cook to and I think they are called soft, hard, etc. but I don’t remember exactly because it has been years since I was a child and my mother actually tried to make taffy at home, and did a fair job of it actually). Once the mass of stuff is cooked to this level it is PULLED. Literally pulled. So if you are a person who is doing it non-mechanically you actually stretch this stuff over and over and over until it is the right consistency. Then you make a rope of it and cut it into little squares typically 1 inch cubes. Wrap it up in wax paper and pass it around to your friends who then gobble them up and blame you for ruining all their dental work. (It’s chewy and sticky.)

    Commercially there are machines (noted in my post) that do these activities to allow for mass production. Also flavors and coloring are added at the pulling stage and thus blended in as the pulling progresses.

    I’m trying to think what you might have where you are, that’s anything like this. It’s not toffee, but it has some characteristics in common with toffee.

    It’s just so damn fine a confection I can’t even begin to do it justice. I will post a PHOTOGRAPH on my blog after I go to the Fair this year and have some to photograph.

    As for October Fest—it totally counts as a sketch out activity, though I don’t suppose there are any farm animals. (That’s really the appeal of the Fair to me, people I can find anywhere.)

    • Janine
    • August 17, 2009

    This was hysterical but I have to admit, just reading it gave me a stomach ache. I think all that food sounds a lot better than it tastes, corn dogs excepted. Cannot beat a cornbread battered hotdog on a stick, no how no way!

    • Roz
    • August 18, 2009

    Janine, another reason I have to be careful and not eat right away at the Fair (besides needing to get to work) is that sometimes I’m going on back to back days and I can’t afford to be sick! My desire to sketch is a great controlling factor in my indulgences!

    • Sara
    • August 19, 2009

    Okay, so I totally see the yummy taffy there! now that I’ve read what to look for though, I see the dead chicken too. It’s poor little beak is pointing towards the teal splatters. LOL!

    This is a wonderful series, Roz. I’m so excited about the fair here now! I wonder if I could get my family to cooperate…

    Thanks for the WONDERFUL doggie drawing tips. They’ve gone to a special place in my notes and I can’t wait to put them to use!

    • Roz
    • August 19, 2009

    Sara, glad you can see the candy; hope you get to the Fair!!!

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