Schumacher's Historic European Restaurant
1703 Carnes Ave., State Fairgrounds
7 a.m. to midnight daily

French Meadow Bakery & Cafe
Food Building, State Fairgrounds
8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

I got all choked up leaving the fairgrounds on my first visit of '98. It was a hot, sunny day a week before the State Fair's official kickoff, and the air was heavy with sawdust and cleaning fluids from booth owners fixing up their spaces. The sunshine was yellow and thick. The lawns and plantings were vibrant and untrampled. The place reminded me of a prom queen furiously at work with hair spray and eyelash curlers--jangling with anticipation, yet supremely satisfied with the inevitable outcome. Maybe I was getting choked up from the industrious air, but I think the fog of emotion that lay over the grounds had more to do with it.

Besides, I'd just gotten through checking up on two of my all-out favorite fair-food destinations, places that are filled with treats handmade from fresh, unprocessed ingredients in the old-fashioned, close-to-the-land way I think the fair should embody. At the French Meadow booth, tucked away in the easternmost end of the food building, they hand-mix the ingredients for their scones, spoon them onto baking sheets, and pull them fresh from the oven all day long. At the new Schumacher's booth/restaurant, 100 feet down the hill from the food building, all the food is handmade locally--preservative-free sausages crafted with John Schumacher's recipe at Forster's Butcher Shop in Plymouth, kolaches (Czech stuffed sweet buns) made from flour ground at a mill across the street from Schumacher's New Prague hotel and baked fresh daily by a staff of Czech grandmas who work at the hotel. Even the herbs that flavor John Schumacher's elk ragout come out of his New Prague garden. (The hotel is located at 212 W. Main St., New Prague, 758-2133. French Meadow Bakery's home base is 2610 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 870-7855.)

Both of these places also embody a kind of Horatio Alger spirit, headed as they are by Minnesotans who took honest-food ideas and turned them into enormous successes. You might know Lynn Gordon as the CEO of French Meadow, as the bigwig whose artisan breads are available from coast to coast, but you should have seen her as a teenage gofer scooping ice cream in the shadow of the grandstand. "We were there from six in the morning until midnight," she laughs now. "Halfway through the fair my hands were so tired and blistered they were entirely covered with bandages. And you know what they used to call us? It's almost too embarrassing to say: coolies. I can't believe now I ever let someone call me that."

John Schumacher might be known to you primarily as the guy who always pops up in magazines and on television explaining how to make this schnitzel and that dumpling--but you should have seen him as a 12-year-old kid straight off a farm in Wheaton. He'd come to the fair as a 4-H'er to demonstrate how to make feed bunks for cattle. "I got sent down here with eight bucks, and I never had that much money up until that point in my life. Within half an hour I spent five dollars of it!" To this day it's clear Schumacher can hardly believe it. "Then I found Peter's Hot Dogs under the grandstand, where hot dogs cost a dime and Cokes cost a dime, and for the rest of the time I was here I lived on eight hot dogs and two Cokes a day." Schumacher only captured a second-place red ribbon; the hot dogs stayed with him: "I still eat one of those every day at the fair, Peter's Hot Dogs in the food building. They're the same recipe--though they're not a dime anymore."

Interestingly, both of these bigwigs' State Fair booths are the domains of daughters: Brandi Schumacher, 20 (who started her fair life as an 8-year-old standing on a crate filling pop cups), is John's partner in the Schumacher's booth, and Jenny Gordon, 22, is in charge of the French Meadow booth--even though you'll find Lynn Gordon there every day from open till close pulling scones from the oven. You can see how I could get misty-eyed.

But it's not like I've let my sentimentality overwhelm my taste buds: The most important thing about both these spots is that they sell fantastic food. Lynn Gordon's French Meadow scones are the airiest, fluffiest, most tender mouthfuls; hand mixing prevents them from getting tough, and scones are better every minute they're closer to the oven, so here they're moments from the oven and heavenly. Crown these fluffy wonders with a ladleful of fresh fruit--sliced strawberries or, depending on the market, either peaches or nectarines--and a dollop of sweet real-vanilla cream-cheese topping, and you've got a powerful reason to fight your way to the back of the food building. (Fruit-topped scones cost $3.50; plain cinnamon and currant scones are $2.50.)

French Meadow's organic coffee has historically been far and away the best at the fair: fresh-ground, strong, and altogether good. (Iced coffee runs $2 a cup, hot java costs $1.50, and a splurge like an iced au lait is $2.25.) Schumacher's is also entering the coffee sweepstakes with a brew roasted daily in New Prague ($1 a cup).

Schumacher's new, restaurant-sized fair booth (between the Waffle House and the Ol' South Pancake House, across from the arcade and the WCCO booth, behind the giant slide) is modeled on the New Prague hotel, and has enough space for full-meal "feasts." One breakfast includes a smoked pork chop, scrambled eggs, fried dumplings, a kolache, and coffee for $7. A lunch-or-dinner feast comprises venison Polish sausage, dumplings, gravy, sauerkraut, and a kolache for $6.25. Schumacher's will also serve the sausage sandwiches that made them famous ($4 at breakfast, with scrambled eggs; $3.75 the rest of the day) as well as the addictive Reuben ($4.25). I've never had the elk sandwich ($5.50), chunks of meat braised in a thick herb sauce, or the raspberry bread pudding with honey sauce ($3.75)--but since every time I've been to New Prague I've been delighted with Schumacher's menu, I'm willing to bet these will be good.

Everyone walks into the fair with an internal checklist of must-sees, must-dos, and must-eats. These "musts" are not like other tourist check-offs--Big Ben in London, croissants in Paris--because they're emotional touch-points visited annually; more like Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas windows, Halloween trick-or-treating. These musts mark a personal end of summer; they connect you to your past self and fellow fairgoers. Lynn Gordon's list--despite the scooping nightmare of her youth--includes root-beer floats; John and Brandi Schumacher, who'll serve up two full tons of sausages in the 12 days of the fair, kick off the first day with a couple of someone else's foot-long chili dogs. Just thinking about my own list of musts--a good, long look at the butter heads and the big pig, a trip on the sky-cars and a spin on the Ferris wheel, a French Meadow strawberry-topped scone and a Schumacher feast--I'm getting all choked up again.

What? All right, all right, maybe I'll check in with an allergist. But I bet you won't be so cynical once you're marveling at seed art with a scone in your hand.

TABLEHOPPING

3.2 UNMASKED! So what exactly is the deal with 3.2 beer? (For you newcomers: All fairgrounds beer is legislatively ordained to be "weak," held to a maximum 3.2-percent alcohol level.) I'm sure you've heard all the 3.2 rumors: that it's simply beer with water added; that it's no different from the manufacturer's other beer and the producers just pay a fine in a bureaucratic cat-and-mouse game; that it's a preposterous, patronizing, Prohibition-era holdover maintained by lazy politicians who wouldn't know good beer from possum spit. Oh wait, that last one's not really a rumor... Anyway, I called up John Lindberg, the Master Brewer at the Summit Brewery, to find out how Summit makes its 3.2 Pale Ale, which is available throughout the fair.

To understand 3.2 you have to have a rudimentary knowledge of brewing, so let's condense this masterful, complicated art into five short sentences: Beer is made of water, malted barley (or another cereal), hops, and yeast. The first steps of brewing result in "wort," water full of flavors, sugar, and starches. The way you count how rich the wort is, how much food will be available to the yeast, is in degrees of "gravity." When you add the yeast to the wort it eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol and bubbles. Strain out the solid stuff, and voilà.

"Generally when we formulate the Pale Ale, we shoot for an original gravity of 12," Lindberg explains. "To make the 3.2, we have to have a lower gravity, 10.8." With only four ingredients in beer, fiddling with any of the components clearly would drastically change the taste, so Summit adjusts the other components to make up for the reduction in sugar. "Our goal is to make the product taste the same [as regular 4.9 Summit Pale Ale] with a different formula," Lindberg says. "Given that alcohol is also an important flavor component in the beer, it never will taste exactly the same. But our job as brewers is to try to get it to taste as much the same as possible. It's not as simple as people think."

So now I'm thinking of 3.2 Pale Ale and 4.9 Pale Ale as identical twins separated at birth--the 4.9 raised in sugar-rich luxury, served in frosty steins by people making sensible food-beverage pairings, and the 3.2 underfed, tortured in a world of plastic cups and crazed meals of cotton candy and alligator nuggets, ice cream and gyros. Somehow that makes me feel even more kindly toward my favorite fairground ale. I'm always rooting for the underdog.

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