How Minnesotan is the State Fair's fare?
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.
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.)
Not everything I tried hit the mark: The bratwurst at the Boulevard Grille (Coliseum), which came from Fischer Farms in Waseca, had a lovely, delicate grind, but it lacked distinctive seasoning—as well as sauerkraut, which I consider sacrilege. At the Lamb Shoppe (Food Building), pasture-raised meat from a Hutchinson farm is sold in multiple forms—on a stick, in burgers, and more. But the gyro I tried was made with meat that was a little under-seasoned, which caused it to be overwhelmed by the flatbread—it would have had trouble competing with one from Falafel King, commodity meat and all.
I spoke with a couple of pork vendors who used Minnesota and Wisconsin bacon in the past, but switched to larger, more distant suppliers because they couldn't get the volume they needed. This season, Big Fat Bacon (Carnes and Nelson) turned to an Illinois-based meatpacker to fill their seven-ton order of pork bellies used for quarter-pound slabs on a stick.
Famous Dave's (Chambers and Liggett) used Neuske's bacon for the chocolate-covered bacon "pig lickers" it debuted last year. This time, they're buying bacon from Hormel and pig cheeks from Farmland for use in their new peach-glazed pork cheeks on a stick. I reached the stand's owner, Charlie Torgerson, on his cell phone as he worked the deep fryer, and he cited quantity as the main reason for the switch. "I would love to use local people," he said, "but they can't keep up or get here fast enough." What kind of volume are we talking? Torgerson said he had purchased 20,000 cheeks before the fair started and reordered 15,000 after the first day. "They don't even have those kinds of herds," Torgerson said of some of his favorite Minnesota farmers. Ironically, increased popularity has made once-local products scarcer.
The fair's massive demands are also why the malts offered in the Empire Commons Building are made with a custom dairy blend produced by Classic Mix in Neenah, Wisconsin, which sources milk from around the upper Midwest. Sherry Newell, of the Midwest Dairy Association, explained that the choice was a matter of logistics: They couldn't find a Minnesota-based supplier who could provide the massive 300-gallon containers of mix their machines require during the fair's brief tenure.
Newell did point out that the fruit in the strawberry and apple-pie malts comes from Pine Tree Orchards in White Bear Lake and also that the cold, creamy All-You-Can-Drink Milk (Judson and Clough) comes from Minnesota cows. In fact, most milk we consume travels less than 100 miles, since we have plenty of dairy farms and milk processors in the area. But many of the cheese curds, which have always been more of a Wisconsin thing, aren't of Minnesota origins. Dave Cavallaro, owner of the "mouth trap" stand in the Food Building, for example, buys 50,000-some pounds of fresh, squeaky stuff from a creamery in Ellsworth—a.k.a. the Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin.
THE EASIEST WAY to eat local, I found, was to think beyond the fry basket and go for the healthy stuff, as much of the fair's fresh produce comes from Minnesota. This year, the sustainability-minded nonprofit Renewing the Countryside is selling fresh fruits and vegetables outside the Progress Center-Eco Experience building (Randall and Cosgrove). They're featuring a Caprese salad on a stick with golden cherry tomatoes and basil from Minnesota's Featherstone and Garden Farms, and cheese from Wisconsin's Crave Brothers. It tasted quite fresh, but not as flavorful as I might have hoped. Gardens of Eagan and Featherstone supply the super-sweet sugar baby watermelons, which are delightful to eat when split in half and tackled with a spoon, cereal-bowl style.
Other favorite produce picks include the most thirst-quenching drink at the fair, a Minne-soda made with chokecherry syrup from the Red Lake Nation: It's cranberry tart, with a gentle fizz. (I found the Minne-soda with sugar bush maple syrup a little cloying.) Also, the best sweet corn you'll eat all summer (Dan Patch and Nelson), which is raised in Monticello, picked at its peak, roasted in the husk, and dipped in butter. And the cider pops, served Mr. Freeze-style in a plastic sleeve (Agriculture/Horticulture)—no neon colors or crazy chemicals, just a pure, sweet-sour cool-down, bargain-priced at a buck.
The new Tornado Potato at Sunny's (Food Building) was perhaps more fun to watch being made than to eat. A potato is stabbed onto a stick, attached to an electric drill, and pushed through a blade to create a thin spiral. While I liked the flavor of the Minnesota-grown spuds, the deep-fried coil came out soggy, and I wished I'd gone with one of the enormous baskets of potato chips instead.
One thing I took away from my local-foods quest, besides a full stomach, was a reminder that eating Minnesotan can take many forms. Local foods don't have to be confined to farmers' markets, co-ops, and chef-driven restaurants. They can be as plain as they can be fancy—and as sugary, fatty, and indulgent as they are healthy. But one thing they don't need to be is hard to find. Even at the fair.
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