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FAIR GAME

One man. One day. One challenge: to eat every deep-fried delicacy available at the Minnesota State Fair. It was either the best idea ever—or the worst.

{This story first appeared in the April 2009 issue of Minnesota Monthly.}

It seemed like such a simple idea.

And it all began because I had never been to the State Fair. Ever. The older I got, however, the more I became fascinated with friends’ stories of fair-related gluttony, of all the things available on a stick—most of them fried—among the fields of play in Falcon Heights. Such food sounded exotic, dangerous even. A deep-fried Twinkie coated with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce? Is that even legal?

And so I hit upon a plan. What would happen if I attended the Minnesota State Fair and tried to eat every deep-fried item I could get my hands on—in one day. One 90-degree day at the end of August.

Of course, it was only after I committed to this task that I realized just what I was in for. One day, I logged on to the Minnesota State Fair’s Web site and typed “deep fried” into the food finder and clicked the search button. The results promptly appeared on my monitor.

More than 60 items. That’s when I realized my plan might not be so simple.

According to food historians, deep-frying was invented by Apicus, the ancient Roman equivalent of Julia Child. An ancient cooking text from the fourth or fifth century includes Apicus’s recipe for “Pullum Frontonianum,” which is the only way to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort.

Wait, that’s not right.

Pullum Frontonianum is basically a recipe for fried chicken. The main differences between Apicus’s recipe and the Colonel’s is that ingredients like Defritum (fig syrup) and Liquamen (sauce made from rotten fish guts) aren’t part of the Colonel’s famous “11 herbs and spices.” At least, I think they’re not.

But while deep-frying has been around since the time of Jesus, it didn’t really become popular until the Pennsylvania Dutch got their hands on it. These culinary trailblazers created the first known recipe for doughnuts or, as they called them, olykoeks, or “oily cakes”—which were balls of sweet dough fried in pork fat. So every time you’re thanking a higher power that the Krispy Kreme “hot donuts” sign is lit, you should really be thanking the Pennsylvania Dutch.

But how have we gotten from doughnuts to a deep-fried Snickers?

“Deep-fried foods are novel, portable, and unique,” explains Lynne Olver, editor of the Web site Foodtimeline.com. “These items are not made at home, found in most restaurants, or available in the supermarket. That’s a big part of the draw. Curiosity and creativity also play key roles. Fairs, especially at night with all of the lights and music, have the power to transform a desolate field into a magical place where regular rules don’t apply.”

As the bus carried my wife, Katy, and me into that rule-free magical place, I took stock of my stomach. It felt fine. In fact, it felt hungry. Bring it on, my stomach seemed to say.

My stomach needn’t have worried. It would be brought.

The first Minnesota State Fair was held in 1859 and primarily featured agricultural exhibits, as the focus of the fair was to encourage farming in the state. Fair organizers claim this is still the focus, but with more than 250 food vendors on-site, there’s been a not-so-subtle shift over the last 150 years from growing and raising to consuming. Just ask any of the people spread throughout the fairground trying to sleep off that last turkey leg why they came. I bet you’ll find more people wanting to eat a pig than admiring how big one can grow.

The State Fair’s shift from agricultural exposition to nonstop smorgasbord mimics what appears to be a national shift in the way we view our food. We trust our supermarkets and restaurants to serve us quality food, and we’re happy to engage a willful ignorance about how it got there. The world of agriculture—of farming and the livestock—doesn’t inspire the same sort of awe or reverence it once did, back when the nation was built upon its back. With protein powders and genetically engineered corn dominating the new food landscape, we’ve moved toward carefree consumption, away from the connection we once had with that natural world.

It was into this void that fair food was born. After all, the lack of knowledge, the absence of connection is what makes food at the fair such a great time. You walk up to a booth, plunk down your money and sink your teeth into something new. Will it be good? Will it make you want a refund? Will it forever change the way you look at a chicken/pig/alligator? The only guarantee seems to be that it won’t make you thinner. And when you spend most of your waking hours in a cubicle, there really is no primal thrill greater than eating something that you know isn’t good for you. It’s a quiet act of rebellion. A tiny revolt.

I was about to go all Che Guevara on the Minnesota State Fair.

9:45 a.m.

The first item on my agenda is to settle, once and for all, the Corn Dog vs. Pronto Pup debate. Many have tried, but I shall use my superior taste buds and food knowledge to render any emotional opinions moot. I buy a Pronto Pup and a corn dog and slather both in ketchup. The man in line behind me looks ready to punch me in the throat. Apparently, ketchup is for idiots. I don’t know where the disdain for this condiment came from, but I’ve always put ketchup on my hot dogs, and I’m not about to stop now just because some guy in a purple mesh tank top and a “World’s Greatest Lover” hat gives me the stink eye. I decide that I’ll use mustard on my hot dog when he learns the meaning of irony.

I take a bite of the pronto pup, and let it roll around in my mouth. Then I bite off a bit of the corn dog. After a few more moments of taste-testing, the answer is clear. My taste buds suck. I can’t tell a difference. I pass them both to my wife, a true connoisseur, and she samples them. “The corn dog is gritty,” she says, chewing thoughtfully. “The cornmeal and the hot dog don’t meld together at all. The Pronto Pup, however, has a wheat batter that is smoother, and allows you to taste the hot dog more. The Pronto Pup is the clear winner.”

I nod, make a note, and hold out my hands so she can hand over the dogs. Now she looks like she’s going to punch me in the throat. The little smear of ketchup above her gritted teeth looks remarkably like blood. I realize I’ve had all the battered hot dog I’m going to get today.

10:00 a.m.

I approach the Flowering Onion booth with trepidation. The huge, dripping monstrosities resemble giant spiders, and my stomach clenches, begging me to walk on by. Still, I’m on a mission. I bravely indulge, dredging each bite in the accompanying dipping sauce before consuming. The sensation is similar to eating soggy bread covered in ranch dressing. Which is gross, in case you’re confused.

10:15 a.m.

Now we’re talking. I grab an order of popcorn shrimp, walk five feet, then purchase a bag of mini-doughnuts. The girl at the counter gives me my change, which is coated in sugar. That sugar sticks to everything. We stop and sit on a bench in front of the fresh-fruit booth. I alternate between breaded shrimp in cocktail sauce and hot, sweet mini-doughnuts, and I can’t help but think I’ve stumbled upon the perfect idea for a restaurant chain. I’ll call it “Shrimp ’n’ Sweets” or “Crustaceans ’n’ Confections.” But as I eat, I can’t help but feel judged by the fairgoers in front of me who are eating bowls of fresh-cut watermelon. Look at them, with their little bowls of smugness, I think, glaring and popping shrimp into my mouth. “Oh, I’m going to go the state fair and order fruit!” “Oh, I’m taking care of my heart!” “Oh, I’m a pretentious jerk who hasn’t had fun since they invented Jazzercise!”

I’m beginning to think deep-fried foods make you combative.

10:40 a.m.

Just outside the entrance to the food building, I spy a stand selling jalapeño poppers. I’m a big fan of the spicy delicacy, so I hustle over and grab some. The batter is light enough so as not to overpower the kick of the pepper, which is mellowed nicely by the smoothness of the cream cheese. This is the best thing I’ve had so far. And yet, as good as the popper is, my stomach has begun to knot. I’ve got a full day of eating ahead of me, and it already feels like I’ve swallowed a very tiny, very angry Jackie Chan.

10:45 a.m.

My wife buys a Fudge Puppy. It’s a light, fluffy waffle that’s been dipped in chocolate and topped with whipped cream and sprinkles. As she takes a bite and her eyes roll back in her head with pleasure, I seethe with jealousy. After barely an hour I break one of my own rules. For the sake of my gastric well-being, I have decided that I shouldn’t indulge in any non-fried offerings. But then I taste the Fudge Puppy. All memories of the excellent jalapeño popper are wiped clean with that first bite. The Fudge Puppy is awesome. Light, delicately sweet, and not overly filling, this immediately becomes my must-have for all future fair visits. Also, my stomach seems grateful that I’ve given it something not covered in breading and grease, and releases its death grip. Relieved and rejuvenated, we step inside the food building.

11:00 a.m.

Once sheltered from the sun and bathed in the glow of fluorescent lights, my spirits sink. There’s just too much food. How can one man (and his already-full wife) ever hope to try every deep-fried food at the fair?

Though hope seems futile, I nevertheless get a sampling of calamari, fish, clam strips, and coconut shrimp at the “Fish and Chips” stand from Laura, who laughs in my face when I tell her of my mission. I then move through the well-oiled machine of the “Mouth Trap” and exit with a heaping basket of their famous cheese curds and a few earnest wishes of “good luck” from my fellow fairgoers.

I spy my wife at a table, where she’s waiting with two bottles of water. I graze on the seafood, and marvel at the way breading has the power to mute the flavor of just about anything. The only difference between the fish and the calamari is the squid’s rubbery texture, which sends my stomach into rolling fits. I let out a groan and my wife frowns, concerned. Maybe it’s time to raise the white flag, she offers. Then I pop a cheese curd into my mouth. Suddenly, my taste buds leap to life. I’m salivating, and my stomach stops playing a drum solo long enough for me to realize that this tastes good. For a while there, I was afraid nothing would ever taste good again.

I’m back, baby.

11:20 a.m.

I plow through the items on my list with renewed energy. I grab fried green tomatoes and corn fritters with honey butter. The tomato is bland and all I taste is the ranch dressing I’m dunking it in, but the corn fritter and honey-butter combination is delicious.

11:30 a.m.

With something approaching reverence, I purchase a deep-fried Twinkie. The only problem: The deep-fried Twinkie is not good. It tastes like a hot ball of type II diabetes. I press on.

11:45 a.m.

While my wife waits in line for the bathroom, I grab deep-fried pickle slices from “Preferred Pickle” and fried green beans (dubbed “Leprechaun Legs”) from O’Gara’s. The deep-fried pickle floods my mouth with an unpleasantly hot, sour tang, and I quickly switch to the green beans. They’re fantastic. The green beans are fresh and still have snap to them, even after a dip in the fryer.

12:00 p.m.

Consulting my map, I realize we’re right next to two booths with multiple entries on my list. Axel’s is serving deep-fried macaroni-and-cheese on a stick, deep-fried tater tots (hash browns, cheese, bacon, sour cream, and green onions), and deep-fried chocolate-chip cookies. Ooodles of Noodles is offering deep-fried s’mores and a deep-fried spaghetti-and-meatball dinner on a stick. A few minutes later, my arms loaded with food, I sit next to my wife at a table near the entrance to the Skyride. She has purchased lemonade made with real lemons. She sips it while observing the coronary buffet I’ve laid out before myself. I start with the tater tots, which are unbelievably rich and tasty. Thankfully, the portion is somewhat reasonable, as too much of this good thing would surely spell my doom. The mac-and-cheese is next, and it’s a letdown. After the gooey cheesiness of the tater tots, these bite-sized pasta bits are dry and bland. The deep-fried chocolate-chip cookie is simply ridiculous. It’s really good, but you can’t eat one and not feel like this must be the freedom the terrorists hate.

The deep-fried s’more is awesome, but by this point I’m on tilt, and I can barely lift the stick to my mouth to get another sticky, lip-smacking bite. I’m alternately wishing I had a stomach to accommodate more of this treat and wishing that I were dead.

My wife takes pity on me and offers me a sip of her lemonade, which she insists is “so good.” I take a sip and taste nothing. My taste buds, like so much of the food on offer at the fair, have turned to greasy, breaded mush.

Just as I’m wondering if they could deep-fry lemonade, I take a bite of the deep-fried spaghetti and meatballs. This is the worst thing I’ve eaten all day. It’s a steaming glob of meat and sauce, and I immediately contract a near-fatal case of the meat sweats.

1:00 p.m.

I continue onward, crossing items off without tasting any of it. The crunch of the breading and the greasy feel of my fingers and mouth are all I’m aware of as I force down salty bits of deep-fried alligator and cheesecake.

1:30 p.m.

I examine my list with new eyes. Now, it’s about survival. Anything that makes me dry heave by just reading about it gets crossed off. That means bye-bye Spam curds, sayonara Scotch eggs. Also, I’m fairly certain I can’t eat anymore sweets without lapsing into a coma, so the deep-fried Oreos and Snickers bar gets crossed off, too. I have two items left: veggie fries and fried fruit on a stick.

2:00 p.m.

The veggie fries are easily the biggest portion of anything I’ve had yet, and any health benefits are erased by the gobs of ranch dressing that you’re supposed to dunk the “fries” in. It seems as though everything at the fair comes with ranch dressing. I want to kill the person who invented it.

2:20 p.m.

My final stop is the fried fruit stand. I don’t know if it’s because I’m eating fruit or if it’s because it’s my last stop, but this is the best thing I’ve eaten all day, hands down.

2:45 p.m.

Deciding to quit while I’m ahead, I let my wife guide me back to the exit gate. On our way, we pass the all-you-can-drink milk stand where a boy of about 10 pukes in front of me. I’ve never been more jealous of a child in my life.

3:00 p.m.

My wife helps me back onboard the bus. As we pull away, I think about how much I admire the passion these people have for the food they sell. This is creative food, fun food—it’s not supposed to be part of a balanced diet. The State Fair is the one time a year when the rules don’t apply.

The fairgrounds fade behind us as my wife settles in for a catnap. Next to her, I fidget and twitch as I come down off my sugar high. As full as I am, I need a fix. After rummaging through my backpack and Katy’s purse, I realize I have only one option.

I lick a finger and dip it into my wallet to sweep up the few stray granules of mini-doughnut sugar still clinging to my singles. As I enjoy my pathetic version of Fun Dip, I gaze fondly back at the fairgrounds. I’ll be back next year. And, if I can figure out the science of it, I’ll be back with four stomachs, just like a cow.