So long, sticks!: The fair foods they are a-changin’

The Minnesota State Fair

The Minnesota State Fair

Consider the Pronto Pup. Back in 1947, it was the very first food on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair, a novelty with immediate, obvious appeal: functionality and unpretentious goofiness. Stuff-on-sticks soon became the defining, enduring culinary stunt of the fair, from spaghetti-on-a-stick to wine-glazed deep-fried meatloaf-on-a-stick—which was a real thing in 2013.

Today there are more than 80 foods-on-sticks at the fair, according to Nikki Hines, the fair’s Attractions and Food Concessions supervisor. They’re still selling well. They’re reliable standbys. And yet, when it comes to the list of new foods, they’re remarkably absent. Last year, there were just three, including charcuterie-on-a-stick and an impaled-fruit concoction called sangria-on-a-stick, neither of which earn points for ingenuity or technical difficulty. Among this year’s debutantes, the stick-count is down to two.

But if the gimmick of skewered food has run its course, a different trend has been building over the last several years, as both the fair and fair-goers have embraced a more global menu. This year, that includes stuffed cabbage rolls, Turkish pizza, Cuban fusion fajitas, a carnitas taco cone, and Nordic waffles al pastor. If you’re feeling generous with the “global” label, you might also count the Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites.

I’m here for all of it. Yeah, some of them seem to have been dreamed up by a bored (or drunk) line cook playing culinary Mad Libs. They’re no one’s definition of authentic or traditional. But such absurdity and spectacle is the glory of the State Fair—what with its butterheads and mega-pumpkins and llama costume contest. Moreover, cultural mash-ups are a hell of a lot more intriguing than yet another stick-concoction, whose only real trick is not falling to the ground.

The fair’s media relations department has records of its press releases for new foods only back to 2012, but even within that window, you can see the evolution of how and what we eat. There have been plenty of variations on the Pronto Pup, but much of the buzz has been about things like beef tongue caramelos, lamb testicles, camel burger sliders, Persian Kabob Koobideh, chilaquiles, pierogis, and cultural mash-ups like kimchi-and-curry poutine and (a personal favorite) the Carpe Diem, a fish-shaped buttermilk miso waffle cone filled with balsamic-roasted strawberry compote and vanilla ice cream.

A few broader cultural shifts are at play here. Harris points to the rise of food trucks and food-centered television shows. “We and our vendors are keeping tabs on what the next generation of foodies are requesting,” she said in an email. There’s also the social-media hype machine, with its thirst for listicles and OMG WHAT IS THIS shareable content. You want to stand out at the fair? Best make it memorable.

Perhaps most important, though, is the change in vendors. Many of the most attention-grabbing and delicious dishes have come from stands that are themselves relative newcomers. There are only a handful of openings for new food vendors each year—only five in 2018, and seven this year, chosen from about 500 applicants.

Ever since the Midtown Global Market got its fair stand in 2008, occupied by a rotating roster of the Minneapolis landmark’s own tenants, it’s been a reliable source of intriguing new foods. The Carpe Diem, for example, was the work of the late, great Rabbit Hole, while Hot Indian also had a run of inspired fare like Tikka-on-a-Stikka and Paneer-on-a-Spear, proving that sticks still have their place. Global Market stalwarts Holy Land and Manny’s Tortas each have their own spots elsewhere on the fairgrounds, with plenty of intriguing offerings over the years—somewhere on the internet, there’s a photo of your author wearing a paper pig-ear hat from the Swine Barn and drinking one of Manny’s virgin piña coladas, which are served in a pineapple and demand a photo or 10.

The globalization of State Fair food is also, undeniably, an indication of how the Great Minnesota Get-Together has changed over the years, much like the state itself. The fair is hardly some perfect, harmonious microcosm representing the state, but it’s about as close as you’ll find in one specific location. Plenty of old-school features endure—the blue-ribbon quilts and the 4-H kids grooming Holsteins and the whirling terrors at the Midway—but the place and people and cultures evolve together.

That’s all good. It’s great.

This past June, the New York Times ran a dispatch from St. Cloud about the city’s growing Somali community and the anti-immigrant blowhards trying to run them out of town because of some racist “white replacement” conspiracy nonsense. It was infuriating for many reasons, starting with the hostility directed at refugees who are just trying to live their damn lives, but also because it highlighted a narrow, utterly wrong view of history and who Minnesotans are, collectively. The Lake Wobegon caricature—white, Lutheran, small-town—was never an accurate representation of us, but it’s become even more cringingly archaic over the past few decades, as Somali, Southeast Asian, and Latinx immigrant communities (among others) have grown and made their mark across the state—including the State Fair. We’re long overdue for a more expansive definition of what it means to be Minnesotan.

Back at the fair, two years ago, there was a brief public outcry when news broke that the Original Deep-Fried Cheese Curd stand was closing after 42 years of operation. The owners were retiring, due to health concerns, and wanted to pass it on to their son, but fair policy prohibited transfer of ownership. “We generally appreciate the longevity of the prior operator,” the fair’s deputy general manager told KARE 11 at the time, “but we want to look in a new direction if that opportunity presents itself. There will still be plenty of cheese curds on the fairgrounds.”

That’s the right attitude, particularly given the low turnover of food stands. Let the fair change, let newcomers have their say. Every square inch of the fairgrounds is embedded with meaning for thousands of people. It’s good to have familiar classics that never go away. The Pronto Pup is still around, all over the place. But it’s also okay for folks to get nudged out of their comfort zones, to try new flavors beyond variations of stuff on a stick. Let new classics prove themselves, let new vendors try their hands at being part of the spectacle, and let new audiences experience the delirium of a long, satisfying day at the fair, snacks in hand throughout.