At a gathering that celebrates deep fried SPAM curds and advertises 40 “new foods” in 2012, the Minnesota State Fair is culinary overload at its most base level. Ever since I was a boy it’s the fair food that draws me back just as much as climbing on the tractors, visiting the animal barns, or seeing the crop art in the Ag/Hort building. Going off to college I stayed in Minneapolis and attended the UofM, which was a short bike ride from the fairgrounds, and I came to the realization that now on my own I was free to eat as much food at the fair as I wanted without the supervision of a mindful parent. Awesome! It was mini donuts for breakfast, fried green tomatoes for a mid-morning snack, corn dogs and buckets of French fries for lunch, cheese curds and beer in the afternoon, and a bucket of Martha’s cookies for the ride back home with cookies to last for days to remind me of the fun that was had. Now, as a food conscious adult, having children of my own, I have to settle myself into the idea that my children’s innocent little bellies are just not ready for that kind of abuse. Not only that, I realize that I’m often the annoying “do as I say, not as I do” type of parent, who just doesn’t want to load that crap into their beautiful young selves because truly you are what you eat, which is a harsh reality about four hours after leaving the fairgrounds.
Luckily, our son Leo (age 2) is too young to be tempted by any specific food stand. The whir of bright lights, blinking neon signs, rushes of people in their fair outfits, piles of baby strollers, and sky high rides keeps him in a constant meditative-like stare throughout the day. It’s all he’s got just to take it all in. As fate will have it his idea of epicurean perfection is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Although he can now actually say “peanut butter and jelly” it began as toddler babble as “P-Bop Ooo Dee-I,” which is what our whole family now calls it. He wakes up in the middle of the night, sits up and says “P-Bop Ooo Dee-I,” and then falls back to the pillow still asleep. It goes without saying that we don’t have to worry about what he eats at the fair. We packed two P-Bop Ooo Dee-I sandwiches in the wagon and he was good to go.
Our daughter Juna (age 6) requires a little more legwork. Before we were even at the front gates she was asking about ice cream cones from the dairy building. It was 9am, but…it’s the fair, right? The great Minnesota get-together! The oft spoken of annual event where we eat fried food, ogle the farm animals that we don’t see in the city, and people watch until we laugh ourselves silly. Is this really a time to watch what we eat? For me this is a gray area. I’m not on a quest for health food only to deny my own children the same foods that I have grown to love, and this is in part because I want to eat those things too. I’m not going to gorge on fried cheese curds while they eat a tofu lettuce wrap from the Food Building. (As a disclaimer, I doubt you’d be able to find any tofu at the fair.) At the same time, despite SGT’s provocative article on the matter, I’m not going to serve them ice cream for breakfast.
My wife and I have solved this problem with a two-part attack consisting of a healthy pre-fair breakfast and a mandatory prepacked P-Bop Ooo Dee-I sandwich around lunch time. Beyond that, we all enjoy a day of guilty pleasures and often the final poor decision of just one more food purchase before we leave. However, more mindful than ever of the varying opinions of what to feed your kids while at the fair, I decided to compile a list of alternatives to deep fried Twinkies and battered, fried whole cheeseburgers.
Our first activity at the fair was the Little Farm Hands park near the tractors where kids get a hands-on walk-through of farm life. At the end you get to pick out a free snack and while our daughter grabbed a bag of potato chips we found a nice fresh apple for our son that he loved. As we walked down Underwood street, we passed a Fresh Strawberries and Cream stand that was selling beautiful fresh berries.
Our children always like to play on the Rainbow playground demos, and across the street is JD’s which boasts “nothing on a stick.” JD’s seemed like a pretty great place for the family. We went on a Saturday, and even thought the fair was crowded, there was hardly a wait there, and they offered Cheesy Spinach Roll-ups at 2 for $3.50. Around the corner by the bandstand you’ll find the ever classic sweet corn on the cob. For $3 you’ll purchase what will most likely be the most expensive and delicious cob of corn you’ll ever eat. I say it’s worth it. Our daughter loves the fresh corn, it’s not fried, and it fills her up for a while as they’re generally very large cobs. On Nelson street you’ll find Demitri’s Fine Greek stand, which if you’re in the mood for some tasty Mediterranean food at the fair, is a great choice. They offer fresh Greek and garden salads as well as chicken pita sandwiches.
At the corner of Judson & Liggett they advertise organic brats. The one building that I can’t miss is the Agriculture/Horticulture building, and among their displays they also sell inexpensive honey sticks in a multitude of flavors, which our kids love. A little boost of superfood to keep their bodies fighting the good fight. Although I generally avoid the hideously crowded Food Building I did poke my head in to see if there was anything to add to the list there. I was happily surprised to find Manny’s Tortas, a Mexican eatery based in south Minneapolis near Lake & Chicago. They were selling Cuban, chicken, vegetarian, and Hawaiian tortas that any out-of-town’er should try. They also sold fresh pineapple chunks and fresh pineapple juice served in a hollowed out pineapple shell. Another stand in the Food Building that my wife has used before we started bringing our own sandwiches is That’s a Wrap. They sell fresh meat and vegetable wraps that are affordable and delicious if you need to pack something healthy into your ever-hungry children.
Personally I found the resistance to overeating by another strategy. I had dinner plans with my father at Masu, the new sushi/Robata place in northeast Minneapolis for 7pm, and I didn’t want to be sickeningly full when I went. I kept it pretty light, but satisfied the need of a few things fried. I had a thermos of coffee waiting in the car for the drive home, and I snacked on the uneaten half P-Bop Ooo Dee-I sandwich while the kids slept in the back seat. A few hours later, a short bike ride in the light rain was just the recipe for a renewed appetite ready for Japanese fare.
Talking with my wife on the ride home we made plans to have a State Fair day in the middle of the winter in lieu of feeling the need to eat all of the fried food options all in one day’s fair visit. We’ll have a few animal shows … "See the World’s Laziest Cat who has not left her chair in the basement for five years!!" … "Watch as the World’s Hungriest Dog will clean the kitchen floor in the blink of an eye!!" … "Amaze yourself and witness the World’s Fattest Goldfish who is quickly outgrowing his 15 gallon tank!!" We’ll make homemade fried cheese curds, buy a pack of corn dogs from Hackenmeuller’s Meats in Robbinsdale, and bake up a few dozen chocolate chip cookies. Why should the fair come but once a year?
Benjamin Krikava lives in north Minneapolis with his family. After over a decade of restaurant work he has moved on to be employed in the medical field, now helping to prevent heart attacks rather than cause them. When he's not at work or on his bicycle you will find him in the kitchen drinking the rest of the bottle of wine that the recipe didn't call for. His last article for us was: Cocktails from the Garden.