What do candy bars, pickles, and Swiss cheese have in common? For 12 glorious days at the end of summer, they are all battered, deep fried, and served on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair.
Founded in 1859 as a show-and-tell for agriculture and industry, the “Great Minnesota Get-Together,” held in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area, isn’t only about eating. Twelve-year-olds and their animal companions parade around a livestock pen for the standing-room-only llama costume contest. Young women compete to be named this year’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way—a goodwill ambassador for state dairy farmers—and to have their likeness carved into a 90-pound slab of butter. And people of all ages, unfazed by the smell of manure, fight for unobstructed views at the livestock birthing demonstrations. (Discover the best food cities around the world.)
But as the state’s population became increasingly urban, the fair focused on the thing that most obviously connected agricultural and urban life—food. Fair food and drink became the stuff of Midwestern legend, to the tune of nearly $42 million in sales last year. (Experience all that Minneapolis has to offer with these tips.)
So yes, the fair is mostly all about the food: fried gator nuggets, beer gelato, candied bacon donut sliders, chocolate chip cookies by the literal bucketful. Those are just a few of the treats you can find at the fair, which enlists city buses as shuttles and converts Twin Cities parking lots to Park-and-Rides in service of the nation’s second-largest state fair event. (Texas, which has five times the population of Minnesota and will run for twice as long later this fall, beats Minnesota’s two-million-person attendance by just 250,000.)
There’s one thing to know before you go: The best items come “on a stick.” This year you can find three new fair foods served in this precariously top-heavy manner: cookie dough, deep-fried tacos, and deep-fried bratwurst-stuffed pickle.
How did this novel obsession begin? One might think it started at the 1901 Fair, when then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt gave one of the country’s most famous political speeches in U.S. history, imploring people to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
But no. According to fair records, the stick that became the iconic symbol of the fair debuted in 1947, with the Oregon-made, pancake-battered Pronto Pup—known at the fair as a “Hot Dog on a Stick.” Who knows why the phenomenon caught on. Whatever the reason, the stick stuck.
The number of speared menu items grew steadily through the 1970s, with frozen watermelon, turkey, steak, and pineapple on a stick. Soon you could also find gefilte fish, chocolate-covered Belgian waffles, and alligator—all deliciously impaled. Today, 80-plus of the roughly 500 fair foods are served skewered.
The beloved gimmick is founded in practicality, says state fair spokesperson Danielle Dullinger. “You can walk around while holding your food on a stick and eating as you go,” she says. And that’s important on state fair grounds that are about four times the size of Disneyland. “It’s portable and it makes perfect sense.”
And while batter-dipped, deep-fried foods-on-a-stick are what it’s known for, today’s gathering has fare for everyone. This year’s new offerings include gluten-sensitive and vegan options, such as the Grilled Sota Sandwich (cinnamon nut butter and Minnesota blueberry marmalade served on gluten-free Irish soda bread), which Dullinger says is “like a peanut-butter-and-jelly but on steroids.” Other new foods range from healthy-ish (gluten-free shrimp and grits fritters) to devilish (cheesy Sriracha funnel cake bites).
This year, St. Paul–based ice cream company Izzy’s is partnering with Minneapolis singer and writer Dessa to debut a new flavor at the fair. Dessa’s Night Drive—coffee ice cream with cardamom, chocolate-covered espresso chips, and toffee crunch—is inspired by the touring musician’s go-to drink on the road, espresso with steamed milk. The final product (tested on her mom, her apartment’s caretaker, and a smattering of random neighbors) is the culmination of two of Dessa’s childhood passions: sweets and the state fair.
“The fair to me meant a lot of walking and a lot of waiting in line,” she says. “But it also meant a virtually infinite selection of treat foods.” Her favorite? Rainbow ice, a syrupy, deconstructed snow cone, slurped up through a long, red straw.
But the food culture of the Minnesota State Fair is not just about consumption. Every year, bakers like St. Paul’s Kris Cramer submit their goods to a team of judges who award the highly coveted blue ribbons in categories such as “unfrosted honey cakes” and “grand cake sweepstakes.” At the urging of her in-laws ("to bring honor to our family”), the self-taught baker submitted her peanut butter cookies and oatmeal cookies—and took home blue ribbons on her first try. “I was so surprised, I had my husband double-check the results because I couldn't believe it,” Cramer says. Last year, she earned the blue ribbon in the most competitive category: chocolate chip cookies.
This year, Cramer had a baby on August 12. She dropped off her contest baked goods five days later. She’ll be going to the fair with a two-week-old in tow. Nothing gets in the way of Minnesotans’ annual tradition.
Katie Thornton is a writer, podcaster, 2018-2019 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, and born-and-bred Minneapolitan. Every August you can find her roaming the Minnesota State Fair’s amusement park with an obscene amount of French fries.
Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber are the husband and wife behind the photo team Ackerman + Gruber. The pair is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and make a spreadsheet every year to map the new foods they want to try at the Minnesota State Fair. Follow them on Instagram.
Story updated to correct definition of a Pronto Pup.