Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Minnesota State Fair Food from A to Z

Sunday, August 30, 2009 45 comments
 Minnesota Mural at State Fairgrounds in St. Paul

For those of you familiar with that all-American agricultural jubilee know as the State Fair, certain foods are synonymous with these events: corn dogs and roasted corn, cotton candy and candy apples, and more recently, all manner of deep-fried or on-a-stick treats. The Minnesota State Fair is no exception.

What began in 1859 as a livestock exhibition to promote farming is now second only to Texas' as the largest State Fair in the country. With so many hungry people streaming through the gates, the Great Minnesota Get-Together, as it's affectionately known, should really be called the Great Eat-Together: there are 300 concessions offering 450 different kinds of food with more than 60 of those served à la stick. (Source:

Joining a few friends for lunch at the Fair

Having never visited this convivium of comestibles before, I was curious if the Fair's fare reflects modern Minnesotans' multiculturalism and concerns about nutritional and environmental issues with regard to food. So, I sent a proposal to for its August 24, 24, 24 blog event - to eat one State Fair dish for each letter of the the alphabet, fulfilling at least one of the following criteria:
1. It contains an uncommon yet natural (or naturally-occurring) ingredient;
2. It originates in an ethnic cuisine to reflect Minnesota's multicultural past and present;
3. It is produced locally and/or uses organic/seasonal/healthy ingredients*. 
(*This doesn't mean that the complete dish itself is actually healthy . . . !)

I started by identifying the foods ahead of time with help from the Minnesota State Fair's Fabulous Fair Food Finder and additional guidance from online food magazine The Heavy Table. I then marked my choices on a map of the fairgrounds so that I and my able assistant, Mr. Noodle, could eat with efficiency and expediency.

My plan to pick one edible per letter of the alphabet did hit a small snag: there were no choices for 'U' and 'X', which left us with 24 dishes. That's still a lot of food and I was worried about wasting any of it, so I came up with these additional guidelines:

- we would share one order;
- I would pick a food that could be saved for home (e.g. bison salami instead of bison burger);
- we would leave most of the heavy foods (e.g. noodles) until last so that we could taste, then wrap it to go with plastic and paper bags I brought along.

So, armed with small bills, camera, notebook and loose-waisted pants (me), Mr. Noodle and I set off on our edible expedition:

2009 Minnesota State Fair Food from A to Z

(Please feel free to click on the photos to enlarge!)

A is for Alligator at Bayou Bob's. Sautéed in garlic olive oil and served with gator-shaped french fries, these bites had a taste and texture more akin to pork than chicken. One of Mr. Noodle's favorites of the day.

 B is for Bison Salami, courtesy of the Minnesota Buffalo Association. Morsel of fact: bison and buffalo are not the same - only African and Asian species are considered 'true' buffalo. Rather than gnaw on a large salami at the Fair, we took it home and enjoyed it with cheese and crackers.

C is for Churros from local French Meadow Bakery, one of the country's longest continuously-running certified organic bakery since 1985. Their non-GMO, organic, gluten-free and low-glycemic products are available online and at national markets like Wegman's and Whole Foods. The churros were saved from being average by an excellent maple dipping sauce.

D is for Deep Fried Fruit at - surprise! - Fried Fruit. Banana, strawberry, pineapple, apple and grapes were skewered, battered and dunked in hot oil - a crazy fruit pancake-on-a-stick.

E is for Elk Jerky from the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association. This 'kippered' elk (a method of preservation that yields a softer meat jerky) had a surprisingly sweet flavor, which we enjoyed at home along with the bison salami.

F is for Falafel at Falafel King, a popular casual Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant in the Twin Cities. This was my first taste of falafel - deep-fried balls of spiced ground chickpeas usually served in a pita. We opted for it on-a-stick to better concentrate on the crunchy goodness.

G is for Gyros from The Lamb Shoppe, the retail store of local all-natural meat farm Liberty Land & Livestock in Hutchinson, MN. This Greek dish is one of Mr. Noodle's favorites but I managed to get my fair share.

H is for Huckleberry Jam offered by Huckleberry Etc. This fruit is similar in appearance to blueberries but has a more tart flavor and is still only harvested in the wild. I used the jam as a topping for mild goat cheddar and crackers - so delicious!

I is for Shaved Ice (passion fruit flavor) from Hawaiian Ice. Consider it our between-course palate cleanser.

J is for Jambalaya at Ragin' Cajun. I had to have at least one rice dish at the Fair! Actually, Mr. Noodle enjoyed this mildly spicy, saucy dish full of chicken and sausages even more than I did.

K is for Kataifi from Holy Land Bakery and Deli, which has been offering what is considered the best Middle Eastern fare in Minneapolis since 1987. Kataifi is a sweet, crisp pastry made with shredded phyllo dough, nuts and honey - a bit too sweet for Mr. Noodle, who ceded the rest to me after a couple of bites. Score!

L is for Lefse at Lynn's Lefse. You can't consider yourself a Minnesotan if you haven't had this traditional Norwegian flatbread made of potatoes, flour and cream. A popular way of serving it is rolled up with sweet-tart lingonberry jam, but we opted for just butter and brown sugar. I only wish ours had been warm enough for them to have melted together.

M is for Maple Syrup Soda offered at the Countryside Market by Renewing the Countryside, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustaining Minnesota's rural communities. Made with locally-sourced pure maple syrup from Stanley's Sugarbush, this soda was refreshing, even for the unseasonably cool day we had. Its perfect amount of sweetness makes carbonated colas taste downright caustic.

 N is for Nitro Ice Cream by Blue Sky Creamery. The hands-down winner of our food-fest, per Mr. Noodle, was this plain yet unbelievably dense and rich vanilla ice cream, made by using liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze the ingredients so that ice crystals do not form in the process. The result is 'The Smoothest Ice Cream on the Planet', according to the company founders, who dreamed up their Nitro Freeze machine while studying chemical engineering at Iowa State University. Better eating through science indeed!

O is for Ostrich Teriyaki at Chinatown MN. And no, it doesn't taste anything like chicken. In fact, we thought that the texture and flavor was closer to bovine than avian. Ground ostrich on-a-stick was good but what I'd really like to see is ostrich feet at dim sum . . .

P is for Peach-Glazed Pork Cheeks from Famous Dave's, the Minneapolis-based national BBQ chain. This was actually our first stop and set a delicious tone for the rest of our day. The meat was wondrously tender and neither cloyingly sweet, as might be expected from a fruity sauce, nor too spicy, which might have wreaked havoc on a stomach used to plain yogurt for breakfast. If we didn't have 23 more dishes to go, I would've ordered another plate.

Q is for Quesadillas with tomatoes and basil at the State Fair outpost of Tejas, an upscale Edina restaurant serving Southwestern cuisine. Hot off the grill, the just-crisp flour tortilla enfolded gooey cheese, thick slices of fresh tomato and enormous basil leaves. Bringing to mind a south-of-the-border caprese salad, this quesadilla was one of my Fair favorites.

R is for Roti Dhalpourie prepared by local Caribbean restaurant Harry Singh's. A popular Trinidadian dish, roti dhalpourie refers to the traditional Southeast Asian flatbread made with a middle layer of ground yellow split peas and toasted cumin seeds (dhal), which is then wrapped around fillings such as curry chicken. I watched as one of the ladies behind the counter prepared a giant batch of fresh roti dough while Harry himself ground the peas. Though the curry filling was almost too mild even for my sensitive tastebuds, the roti was amazing with its thin yet flavorful layer of cumin-studded dhal.

S is for Sunfish Filets in a Boat at Giggles' Campfire Grill. It's no laughing matter: these 'sunnies' were outstanding with a light, crispy coating giving way to a flaky texture and sweet flavor. Walleye may be the revered state fish but I'll take a boat of sunfish any day.

T is for Tamales from La Loma Tamales, locally acclaimed for their authentic version of this very traditional Mexican dish of savory-filled corn dough (masa) steamed in corn husks. We ordered both chicken and pork tamales, the latter having a rich, deep-red hue that promised - and delivered - a nice bit of heat.

U is for Uff Da! Okay, this is a bit of a cheat: I couldn't find a fair food that started with the letter 'U'; then, I got mixed up and thought I had missed the letter 'K'. So we headed to Ole and Lena's for krumkake, a Norwegian cone-shaped waffle cookie traditionally made on special occasions (like Christmas and State Fairs). We were already well into our cream-filled and strawberry-topped cones before I noticed the 'Uff Da Krumkake', topped with caramel sauce and butter-roasted pecan. Maybe next year . . .

V is for Veggie Pie at its namesake stall. I'd describe this as a cold vegetarian pizza but that would be too generous. With its odd cookie-like crust and topped with raw vegetables over a ranch-type dressing, this was easily the most disappointing dish of the day.

W is for Watermelon covered in chocolate, from Andre's Watermelon. Though forewarned by The Heavy Table, we couldn't resist. Lesson learned: too heavy for a thin stick to hold and too thick of a chocolate layer to break through with a flimsy spork, this wasn't tasty enough to merit the effort to eat. A tie with the Veggie Pie.

X is for . . . well . . . nothing. I couldn't find Fair food starting with this letter - not even a special krumkake.

Y is for Yaki Soba at Island Noodles, which prepares this popular Hawai'ian-style version of Japanese fried buckwheat noodles over huge flaming woks. Not too oily and chockful of vegetables (supposedly as much as 21 kinds), I was amazed over how much noodles were stuffed into the container. Although not everyone may agree, I liked the bits of charred noodles.

Z is for Zeppole at Spaghetti Eddie's. These Italian deep-fried pastries are also known as 'St. Joseph's Day cake' for their traditional part in those festivities. Instead of zeppole dusted with powdered sugar, we went for the cannoli cream-filled version, which was a bit runny and had a pronounced almond flavor. Of course, that didn't stop us from gobbling them down.

It took us approximately 6 hours to complete our sponsored gluttony, not including some time checking out the livestock barns (aren't we supposed to see where our food comes from?) In the end, all but two items were either consumed on the spot or taken home. Thank goodness for the Express Bus, which took us most of the way back home - otherwise, we would've been DWS (Driving While Stuffed). As it was, we brought home some leftovers to tide us over for a couple of meals. Fair eating continues . . .

While most of the food served at the State Fair would never pass muster on nutritional quality, I was  pleased to find quite a few dishes that were reasonably healthy. Furthermore, it was great to see a strong representation by local businesses as well as an educational exhibit called The Eco-Experience, which showcases environmentally-friendly products and events such as cooking demos. However, I was hoping that among the food choices would be examples of the large Somali and Hmong communities (although they are mainly clustered in the Twin Cities). In particular, the latter group's active presence as vendors at the local farmer's markets attest to their dedicated participation in state agriculture; perhaps in the future, we will have more opportunities to taste their cuisine.

All in all, it was a fun and full-feeling day!
The Minnesota State Fair runs until Labor Day, September 8th so there's still plenty of time to make your way to St. Paul for a taste of Fair food.


  • Anonymous said...

    The state fair sounds fabulous - sounds like quite a selection of great foods and I'm so impressed that you were able to find a food for every (other than x) letter! Very neat! Excellent 24,24,24 post!

  • Jenn said...

    Excellent 24 post. I'm amazed you were able to go through the whole alphabet. An awesome feat if i do say so myself. Congrats!!!

  • Caroline said...

    What an awesome idea for a 24 post! Sounds like you and Mr Noodle had a blast at the fair. Now you got me thinking of doing the same when the county fair start here next month, just got to convince my husband. :)

  • Phyllis said...

    AWESOME 24,24,24!!! So creative, fun, and insanely ambitious! The Minnesota State Fair is truly a weird food lovers paradise - I wish I could've tagged along with you and Mr. Noodle (as an expert in gluttony, LOL!!) I'm also intrigued by Hmong cuisine after seeing the delicious dishes featured in Gran Torino. Hopefully you'll see some Hmong concession stands in future years. And WHAT - this was your 1st time trying falafel?! You'll be hooked for life :)

  • Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

    The state fair sounds like fun. I haven't been to a fair in years but if the food is as good as it sounds, I must be missing something. Even though we're in North Carolina, we don't live too far from the Georgia State Fairgrounds in nearby Hiawassee; maybe I'll pop over there sometime. Sounds like you and Mr. Noodle had a great time.

  • Lori said...

    This is such an awesome idea for a 24,24,24! The ABCs are terrific. You are so creative! I have to say you all have so many things up your way at the state fair that I've never seen at the KY state fair. What a great foodie event!

  • raquel said...

    Wow! You got from A -Z. Excellent game plan. I had to laugh at the ostrich feet we call it Adidas-ala-Shaq?

    Excellent foodbuzz 24,24,24!

  • The Diva on a Diet said...

    Hi Noodle! What a great idea for a 24, 24, 24 post ... I just loved reading this and experiencing the fair through your eyes ... or, rather, tastebuds! I love state fairs! Often the food is disappointing though, so I'm glad you found some winners here. Really like the sound of those tamales, roti, ice cream and the soba.

    Glad you got to try the falafel too, its one of my most favorite things. Yum!

  • The Duo Dishes said...

    What a great idea! None of the scary fried foods there that we usually see. Sounds like a lot of fun. The L.A. County Fair opens this weekend, so let's see what scary fried food we eat. :)

  • Forager said...

    What a clever way of showcasing the fair - eating your way through the alphabet! You needed some Shanghai dumplings (xiao long bao) to complete your alphabet food :)

  • Lory said...

    That was indeed fabulous that you found a food for every letter (except x!).
    No doubt you had so much fun at that fair. I wish our fair here was even half as much fun as that!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Many thanks, everyone, for your comments! I've been trying to catch up today on some stuff that I put aside in the interest of eating my way through the fair on Saturday and then re-living it by blogging on Sunday! 8-D

    I'll be back bright and early tomorrow to respond to each of your generous comments!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Did I say 'bright and early'? Just a bit delayed today . . .!

    5Star - Thank you! I wasn't sure if I'd have to resort to picking out foods by novelty names but it worked out well. Although some were still very much in the deep-fried and calorie-laden categories, I was impressed that there were well-made and relatively healthy options. 8-)

    Jenn - Thanks! The online food finder was a godsend for pre-planning.

    Caroline - We had a great time although I was worried that I'd get a tummy ache before we got through all the dishes. Go for it at the county fair! And please let me know if you find foods that go beyond the typical 'fair' foods of the past!

    Phyllis - I'm going to add a note to this post that the idea for this endeavor was inspired by you and your 'crawls'! 8-D There is a new Hmong cookbook that I would like to try out so I'll let you know how that goes. And yes, this my first falafel! [LOL] I kept vowing to try it but was always diverted something else (meat-based, of course) on the menu. I really liked this, especially how incredibly crunchy it was on the outside. I'm going to try making it w/fava beans b/c I have a slight intolerance to chickpeas. Luckily, no reaction on Saturday! 8-)

    Sam - The last fair I attended was the '99 NC State Fair in Raleigh. Back then, I was more interested in the games (don't ask why) and the food competitions. I would love to hear from others about their Fair experiences with food today - are the current food issues about local/organic/seasonal eating showing up at these event? It would be interesting . . . Hope you check out the GA SF!!

    Fuji Mama - [LOL] Can you imagine how monstrous it would be? My husband doesn't like chicken feet b/c he says they don't have enough meat - no problem w/ostrich! 8-D

    Lori - Thank you so much! I'll have to check it out next year to see if any more changes happen. But the Fair (and the food) here is such serious business - I don't think people want their Pronto Pups (corn dogs) taken from them! 8-)

    Raquel - Great name!! We should look into opening our own dim sum take out featuring this item. 8-D

    Nora - We had a great time and still had a chance to enjoy some of the leftovers at home!

    Bob - Believe me, my husband feels the same way. If I hadn't mapped out our route from place to place, he might not have agreed. As it was, we got there as early as possible to avoid as much of the crowds but still assuring that the food stands were open!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    (More replies)

    Diva - You picked out the best foods! The roti dhalpourie was the first I've tasted and it was excellent. The tamales were fresh, the soba had a nice smoky char to it and the ice cream was honestly some of the best, texture-wise, I've ever tasted.

    And the falafel was a revelation - don't know why it took me so long to try it! Have you ever made it at home? I'd like to try it . . .

    Duo Dish - I hope you'll dish on scary fried foods at the LA County Fair! I so wanted to try some of the more interesting-sounding ones (Norwegian deep fried banana split, anyone?) but was trying to be responsible! Next year . . .

    Gera - Thank you! I don't quite have the skill to put on the tremendous dinners that I've seen on 24,24,24 so I just wanted to have fun with it!

    Elra - This is one of the biggest so the wide food selection might be unusual but I was so happy to see that there were choices for people who want to eat local/healthy but still have fun fair food!

    Forager - Along with Phyllis, you were an inspiration for this idea, with your marathon dinners! 8-D Oh, xiao long bao would've been great for X. In fact, I just wished there were more 'authentic' versions of some of the 'ethnic' cuisines like Chinese and Greek - most of the ones at the fair were much like what you'd find at any shopping mall. Still, at least there were some standouts like the Trinidadian and Mexican spots.

    Manang - I'd still encourage you to go (and if you do, please let me know what kinds of 'different' - not corn dogs, etc. - you might find!) But we did indeed have a great time. 8-)

    Tasty Eats at Home - Surprisingly, we weren't as stuffed as I feared we might be! This is probably the only time I will not complain that we didn't get enough food for the money they charged. 8-D

    It helped that we ordered to share and saved for home what we could. (I got some weird looks when I pulled out plastic baggies from my giant tote bag to wrap up the leftovers.)

    Lisa - We've lived here for nearly 5 years and this was my first time. Now I can say I've been . . . I hope you'll go to the TX SF just to say the same. But also, I want to pick your brain about it - it's the biggest in the country and I'd love to hear what kinds of foods they have there and what you think about them! 8-D

  • Unknown said...

    I have to say I think this is one of the best 24, 24, 24 ideas I've seen yet - very cool! I love the pictures with the little letters in the corners (took me a minute to figure that out). Great post!

  • Rachel said...

    Ok, this? Is intense. And makes me reeeally hungry, and unable to wait for our local Durham Fair, the best dang collection of fair food in the state of Connecticut.

    I think I'll be frying some dough in my kitchen tonight.

    Yeah, yeah I will.

  • Hornsfan said...

    What a cool way to do the State Fair! I must say, as unhealthy as it is, the State Fair here in Texas is known mainly (foodwise) for the fact that you can find nearly everything fried...yea not so healthy but have you ever seen Fried Coke?? I mean realy!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    ValleyWriter - Thank you so much! I had a lot of fun with it (especially since I didn't have to cook!) My idea w/the letters were kids' alphabet books but some are very distinct. Still . . . 8-D

    Rachel - You realize that you will now have to report on that 'best dang collection of fair food'. I want to know how they do it CT-style! Save some of that fried dough for me - didn't get enough of oil-drenched goodness due to my self-imposed criteria.

    Reeni - Thank you! After all that gorging, I want to go back; seems like I missed a lot more good stuff!

    Midge - Thanks! This is the closest we get to street food here in Minnesota. 8-)

    Palidor - I had a great time with it (so did the hubs). As for X, that one really is tough. Forager above suggest xiao long bao but I was lucky just to find yaki soba much less a dim sum item! 8-)

    Eatlivetravelwrite - Thank you so much! I'm slowly going through the Aug 24s and am really intrigued about you Laotian dinner!

    Joelen - Come on over! 8-) However, my husband and I have been pining for Chicago, our favorite city and home for a couple of years. Sigh. So close yet so far . . .

    Hornsfan - Okay, I must know what a Fried Coke is! Then, I must have it, no matter what it is! 8-D

    State Fairs and their food are a whole 'nother universe, arent' they? I'd love to hear more about Texas' - it can't help but be big, bold and spectacular!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hope y'all enjoyed your weekend!

    Kat - Welcome back! Hope to hear all about your travels. This was my first ever MNSF so I had to go big! 8-D It was a lot of fun but I think next year, I'll limit the goodies.

    Pigpigscorner - I wish that they sold a discounted multi-day pass; there were so many more foods I wanted to try that didn't quite fall under my 3 criteria. But it gives me a good reason to go back next year! The pig cheeks were definitely a highlight - I will have to see if they offer it on the restaurant's regular menu.

    Momgateway - Thanks! The oyster sauce isn't necessary for the stir-fry: you can use soy sauce for and/or beef broth, then thicken it with a slurry made of cornstarch dissolved in cold water (ratio of about 1:1.5) or arrowroot starch, which can be added immediately to the liquid w/o being dissolved first. However, it must be done at the very end of cooking as the thickening actually breaks down the more it's heated.

    Greg - Thank goodness for the online Food Finder and the Heavy Table (which started a series of fair food a couple of days before we headed out) which helped me ID foods before we even went. As it was, three items we waited to taste at home, as well as a good amount of 'leftovers' but most we were able to eat (thanks to the husband). There were, however, two dishes that I admit we ditched after just a few bites - they were so disappointing. As much fun as it was, we'll probably limit ourselves next year!

  • petite nyonya said...

    This is one heck of a gastronomical adventure! I had so much fun reading all that you wrote! Bravo!!!! Don't think I can bring myself to try the alligator meat, though. So, double BRAVO to Mr & Mrs Noodle!

  • OysterCulture said...

    Sounds like another culinary adventure. Funny how the Minnesota State Fair seemed to get so much press this year, although thinking about it its probably because I know more people blogging from MN. Growing up, Iowa always too the lead in terms of state fairs. I loved all the "food on a stick" references too.

    Very creative and ambitious to do the alphabet - I salute you!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Jennifer - Thank you! You can't believe how thrilled I was that Foodbuzz accepted. No antacid needed but I was soooo grateful for the express bus! We both fell asleep for part of the way home and I don't think we could've done that if we'd had to drive while stuffed full. 8-D

    Petite nonya - Thank you so much! Believe me, the alligator really tasted like pork - in fact, I'm starting to wonder if there wasn't a switch . . . ! 8-P

    OysterCulture - It seemed like there was a lot more discussion about the Get Together but for me, I think it's because of blogging - I'm more attuned to the foodie world! Next time, we'll have to catch the Iowa State Fair - for scientific comparison, of course!

    Deeba - Thank you! If you ever find yourself in Minnesota at the end of August, I promise to take you! 8-D

  • zerrin said...

    A fantastic idea for Foodbuzz 24,24,24 event. It's amazing to find a dish for each letter of the alphabet (except the two). Wish I could be there, too.

  • Daily Spud said...

    See how far behind I am? Practically past the end of the alphabet, that's how far!

    Anyhoo, I bow to your dedication in the matter of the State Fair. Am delighted that you made the acquaintance of falafel (I am a falafel fiend myself) and I will definitely have to investigate Lefse further (for obvious reasons). As to the veggie pie, it sounds like exactly the kind of food that gives being veggie a bad name. At least there were plenty of other things there to keep your tastebuds happy!


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