Have you noticed a theme at Simple, Good and Tasty (SGT) this week? Nope, it’s not about the salmonella outbreak in factory-raised eggs; Michael Pollan, Bill Marler and John Robbins are doing a good job covering that subject for us. And, no, it’s not about the growing controversy about whether or not to sell flavored milk in school cafeterias; thank you, Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper, for taking care of that one.
While we’ve got the big guns out doing the big, food stories, we're focusing instead on a topic that’s a bit nearer and dearer to our hearts, and stomachs: food at the Minnesota State Fair.
Wait a minute, you may be saying to yourself, SGT is about local, healthful, humanely sourced food. What’s in the name of Lucia Watson does that have to do with corn dogs, deep-fried candy bars, french fries, and funnel cakes? The answer is, admittedly and unfortunately, not much. As our own Lee Zukor wrote last week, "can't we put our heads together and come up with new [fair food] offerings that taste great, support our state's economy, promote our local farmers, and don't require emergency angioplasty?”
Last year, Rachel Hutton of City Pages wrote "How Minnesotan is the State Fair?," a spot-on account of her search for local food at the state fair. Among her comments: "You'd hardly know that the Great Minnesota Get-Together is run by the State Agricultural Society." And "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." And, finally: "You could spend an entire day at the fair without eating anything locally grown."
Still, every August, locavores like myself optimistically drive down Como Avenue in St. Paul, park in a dusty field, and walk up the ramp to the pedestrian bridge with high hopes that this year will be different – that this will the year we find real, Minnesota food at the Minnesota State Fair.
And then there is reality.
Byron Katie wrote in her book Loving What Is that when you argue with reality, you lose – 100 percent of the time. So in the interest of keeping peace with reality – the majority of the food at the Minnesota State Fair is not from Minnesota, is not humanely raised, is not healthful to humans or the environment – I posed this question to some of the Twin Cities’ most passionate locavores:
“During the Minnesota State Fair, what one food do you know you’re not supposed to eat (it’s bad for you, it’s not local, it’s not humanely raised, etc.) but you have a hard time resisting? And if it’s not fair food, what is it?”
For instance, my forbidden fair food is cotton candy. Always pink. Always on a white, paper cone. I know that it’s nothing but processed sugar, artificial color, and artificial flavor, but when I put that first delicate wisp into my mouth, I can’t wait for the second, the third, and on it goes until I’m actually licking the cone. My nine-year-old daughter, also a cotton candy aficionado – describes it perfectly: “It’s like eating a sweet, pink cloud.”
My husband's fair-food fetish is mini donuts. But not just any mini donuts:
"My favorite is the original Tom Thumb by the food building. When perfect, they're hot and crispy on the outside, and barely cooked on the inside — “medium rare” if such an idea holds for donuts. And it’s important to come prepared with a cup of hot coffee – you don’t want to get the donuts first and let them cool down while you’re ordering coffee. The best fair coffee is at French Meadow, just across the street."
Lee wrote last week that his biggest food weakness is food he’s never tried before, but that some of the new offerings at this year’s fair – chicken-fried bacon in a gravy boat, pizza with corn-dog topping, and deep-fried bologna on a stock – aren’t exactly what he had in mind:
"I've already admitted to a weakness for weird foods, but this stuff isn't really weird, and it isn't very creative either."
What about other local foodies? Do they have a forbidden Fair food that they will admit to eating at the State Fair?
Angelique Chao, writer/blogger, SGT and From Animal to Meat
"Deep-fried Snickers. Snickers aren't exactly local, and I'm not optimistic that the milk in the milk chocolate is sourced from humane, sustainable dairies."
Jenny Breen, chef and food educator, Good Life Catering
"My favorite decadent, and undoubtedly not PC treat at the fair is the salted-nut roll -- gooey nougat (probably sugar and cornstarch) rolled with nuts – (I prefer cashews, but pecans and peanuts are also available) and then covered in chocolate. None of it fair-trade or sustainably raised, I'm sure, but YUM! And directly across from there is my other favorite: corn fritters and fried green tomatoes -- batter with a few kernels of (likely NOT local) corn, deep fried, and slices of green tomatoes -- assuredly mass produced -- also deep fried. Double YUM! Can't wait to see what others admit to."
Tracy Morgan, writer and marketing consultant, SGT and Segnavia Creative
"Easy. Pronto Pups. Not corn dogs, Pronto Pups. Who knows where a hot dog comes from but I’m guessing it's not one of those fancy all-beef sorts either way!! Otherwise, I'm disgustingly good when it comes to the fair -- cheese curds, but only 1/2 order max (and they're local!); caramel apple sundae; corn. That's about it!!"
R.T. Rybak, mayor, Minneapolis:
"Like a lot of people, I develop split personalities at the State Fair. My two favorite foods there are in the Food Building: the gourmet wild rice burger at Wild Rice Specialties, which I follow up with Nitro Ice Cream, which is made on site with liquid nitrogen. I could eat a gallon of that stuff."
Kristin Boldon, writer/blogger, SGT and Girl Detective
"My non-Minnesotan friends are truly horrified by the fair foods I celebrate each year. I excuse them (ahem, OK, maybe rationalize them) by saying it's once a year, and by having the food guideline of going with a group, always getting a small, and sharing. For the fair, I also do my homework and look for other foodie advice so I don't get bamboozled into Joe's random corn dog and cotton candy stand, but am seeking out the things there that might not be healthful, but above all are tasty."
James Norton, founder/editor, The Heavy Table
"Deep-fried candy bars are life-destroying abominations that should be wiped from the face of the planet, and are so tremendously unhealthy that even a paid glutton like yours truly avoids them at all costs... except at the Minnesota State Fair. Then, what the hell. Somehow they sneak into the mix."
Tracey Paska, writer/blogger, Tangled Noodle and SGT
"It has got to be the original, deep-fried on a stick food -- the Corn Dog!! Processed meat product, battered in (highly likely) GMO corn, then deep fried. It couldn't possibly be any worse, but it's so good! But I have had success resisting. Last year was the first time in ages that I have gone to a county or state fair where it might even be a temptation. And I ate so many other things, I had no room for a corn dog!"
Then there are others who won’t admit to a particular Forbidden Fair food, but they do confess a weakness for other foods that probably would not make Michael Pollan’s “Like” list:
Lenny Russo, owner/chef, Heartland Restaurant, St. Paul
"I don't eat junk food, but at home, what we occasionally do is indulge in prime-grade beef porterhouse or ribeye steaks. I'd say we do that once or twice a year. We know it's grain-fed, probably not locally raised (but at least from the Midwest), and most likely not humanely produced. At any rate, it is not consistent with how we normally eat or run our lives and our business. I feel pretty guilty when I'm buying it, but not so guilty when I'm eating it. That said, if it went out of existence tomorrow and I could never have another piece of prime beef, I don't think I would miss it too much."
Daniel Klein, filmmaker, Perennial Plate:
"I've brainwashed myself into being pretty good about what I eat, but my girlfriend always buys avocados and I'm very happy that she does. But I guess that isn't Fair-related, or junk, it's just from a long way away. The same goes for all the French and Italian cheese we buy. As far as junk goes, I really like Sunchips and will sometimes get them if I'm on a road trip; the waxy Hostess chocolate-cake donuts at gas stations are also a craving. And Coke and Gatorade can be extremely refreshing. The thing is my girlfriend loves cotton candy, cheese puffs, Coke, cinnamon bears, Pop tarts... the list goes on, so I constantly have to be the example and not cave in to her tastes... So, after all that writing, I realize that the big thing that I know I shouldn't eat, but that I really like, is diner breakfast patty sausages. I try to eat meat only from good sources, but those breakfast sausages are amazing with a little syrup."
Greg Reynolds, owner, Riverbend Farm
"When I'm out, not near any of my usual places of supply, and need to keep going for another hour, I like a Snickers bar. And while we have some great local beers, Bell's Two Hearted Ale tastes pretty good."
Amy Boland, writer/blogger, SGT and Cook 'em if you got 'em
"OK, I know that pork is NOT the other white meat. It is a red meat liberally streaked with (scrumptious) saturated fat. In its most delicious forms, it is also filled with curing agents that are not good for me. But I love it. I have entire friendships based on shared fondness for pork. I wouldn't say this food is forbidden, but it is certainly not constructive to eat it more than once a week. Which, sometimes, I do."
Hopefully, the courageous admissions (Deep-fried candy bars! Funnel cakes! Corn-fed steak!) by this esteemed group will be the encouragement you need to face your food fetish – whether it's associated with the fair or some other event – and accept it as a delicious and satisfying reminder of this reality: we're all human.