How Minnesotan is the State Fair's fare?

One could spend an entire day at the fair without eating locally grown food

If it's served on a stick, does that make it Minnesotan? Take your sugarcoated fingers out of the mini-doughnut bag and think about it for a second. What are alligator, frozen coffee, and chocolate-covered bananas—stick or no stick—doing at an event that celebrates Minnesota agriculture?

Back in 1859, when the Minnesota State Fair first began, its purpose was to encourage farming through educational exhibits and competitions. Fair organizers hoped that lectures and displays on breeding stock, seed corn, and cheese-making might convince immigrants to settle in wintry Minnesota rather than be lured westward by California's warmer climes.

But today, between the Midway rides, radio DJs, and Jacuzzi showrooms, you'd hardly know that the Great Minnesota Get-Together is run by the State Agricultural Society. The Machinery Hill of my youth, for example, was populated with tractors, combines, and various implements—hulking metal beasts that lured children as readily as playground equipment. These days, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything more impressive than a riding mower. Sure, we pat the occasional piglet or watch a sheep get sheared—have you seen the ones wearing spandex?—but most fairgoers treat the state's agricultural concerns as they do the fair's myriad cow pies. And by that, I mean they avoid them.

Cider pop and honey ice cream
Rachel Hutton
Cider pop and honey ice cream
Made in Minnesota: Corn dog (batter yes, dog no), and watermelon
Made in Minnesota: Corn dog (batter yes, dog no), and watermelon

This year, I decided I would put the farmer back in my fair experience with my food choices—no French fries or funnel cakes unless I knew they had Minnesota terroir. And in the process I discovered a dirty little secret: You could spend an entire day at the fair without eating anything locally grown.

So I aimed to find out how this was the case. If the fair's purpose was to showcase Minnesota farmers' accomplishments—their biggest pigs, reddest tomatoes, and pluckiest chickens—then why couldn't I eat them?

   

THE FAIR'S 300 FOOD VENDORS are a mix of local owner-operators (Sweet Martha's and Tom Thumb, for example, are headquartered in St. Paul and Woodbury, respectively) and traveling vendors who work fairs all over the country. It's challenging for peripatetic vendors to source locally made ingredients at each new location and keep their product consistent, so they often use nationally distributed brands. Florida-based Butch Netterfield is a Minnesota State Fair vendor whose traveling corn-dog stand sets up shop from Miami to New York, and everywhere in between. When Netterfield arrives in each new city, he heads to the nearest Sam's Club to buy hot dogs and the nearest restaurant-supply store for corn-dog batter—a dry mix made by our very own General Mills, actually.

But I probably wouldn't have been able to find that out from one of Netterfield's employees at the stand. If vendors do use local ingredients, that information isn't always something owners promote, or pass on to their staff. (Netterfield did graciously pass on a few tips for corn-dog cookery: Be sure to wipe any moisture off the wieners, keep the batter ice-cold, and cook the corn dogs in 350-degree oil for about three minutes.) The first major barrier I encountered in my local-food challenge was a lack of information. While fair organizers do compile lists of new foods and foods on a stick, they don't track local fare.

So I made my first stop at the stand featuring the most globally recognized Minnesota food: Austin's world-famous Spam (at Cosgrove and Dan Patch). The thick slab of spiced ham was the best part of this year's new breakfast sandwich; the salty meat was griddled to a crisp, nut-brown sear, and it outshone the surrounding egg, cheese, and bun. (Also new at the Spam stand this year, Spam hot dogs, which are only available at retail outlets in Hawaii.)

As soon as I'd ingested the sandwich, though, I started to have doubts about Spam's pedigree: The product was made in Minnesota, sure, but were its ingredients local? A call to Hormel confirmed my suspicions: The hogs come from all over the U.S. and Canada.

This discovery launched a flurry of questions about my "local" definition. What if some ingredients were Minnesotan but others came from origins unknown? Did Summit's beers count if they used Minnesota water and German hops? (By the way, the "Summit on a Stick" being sold at the Bazaar is an ingenious three-holed paddle that holds seven-ounce cups of Extra Pale Ale, Oktoberfest, and Horizon Red. At $7.50, it's also a relative bargain.) In that case, what about 1919 root beer (Dan Patch and Underwood) made by Schell in New Ulm? Could I count the Minnesota-grown wild rice mixed into the burgers and sausages at Wild Rice Specialties (Food Building) or the honey in the delicious ice cream served at the Bee Hive in the Agriculture/Horticulture Building?

It seemed a bit overzealous to take Sweet Martha's cookies off the table just because chocolate won't grow in a prairie grassland or coniferous forest. But then again, would it be hypocritical if they didn't contain local flour or eggs?

   

I DECIDED TO RESTRICT my focus to main ingredients as I considered foods made with Minnesota meats. The Minnesota Turkey Growers stand (Clough and Judson) serves both drumsticks and sandwiches stuffed with heavily spiced, slow-cooked meat. The Minnekabobs stand (Food Building at Dan Patch and Underwood) advertised its grilled kabobs as containing Minnesota-raised bison, beef, and poultry, and the chicken version was as tender as a pillow and infused with a mild soy marinade. The Blue Moon Dine-In Theater (Carnes and Chambers) serves a burger made from Minnesota beef—the patty could have been more seasoned and less cooked, but with its caramelized onions and ciabatta-like bun, overall it was pretty good. (Blue Moon is also baking Neapolitan-style pizzas topped with local vegetables and cheeses in an oven built into a Volkswagen bus.)

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