Inside the MN State Fair's Lucrative Food Business
July 27, 2019 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Well, one always gets cheese curds, every year - I'm sure there are other places to get them, but the ones in the article are the only ones I've had.

One year, long, long ago, I had a home-made banana flip at the fair - actual banana, fresh whipped cream and home-made sponge cake. Real banana flips are too pure for this world, though, and the vendor wasn't there the next year. It was really good. Frankly, a lot of fair food isn't just junk, it's artificial-tasting junk. The long-lost banana flip of my youth was so good because it was made out of simple ingredients.

Otherwise I usually get an order of fried green tomatoes and that's it for me. One really goes to the fair for the crafts, the art barn, the UMN agricultural displays and the variety goose display. There are a lot of kinds of geese.
posted by Frowner at 2:17 PM on July 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

*wistful* One day I'm going to convince someone to go to a proper state fair with me again. Dallas is too far away on my own, and my usual "wandering around food festivals eating things and sharing so everyone gets to eat more things than otherwise" buddy is scared to go to the Texas State one because she says there's too many terrifying white people with guns. Which: yeah, fair. We do the Austin Rodeo every year, and that's probably enough to scratch my livestock-admiring itch. I have a massive soft spot for heritage livestock breeds, especially belted cattle and some of the more interesting sheep, and I really love watching competitive reining when I get the chance. It's like dressage but with more glitz and fun.

I do like them, though. I spent a fair bit of time at the Kansas State Fairs when I was a tween and young teenager, and I love the agriculture exhibits and the various competitions, the crafts and the art. I had a friend who showed chickens for 4H and did various candy-making and cooking competitions, and I confess it always looked like so much fun. And people do some really pretty things to show off. I have a tiny tiny appetite, so I always just buy a couple of things and then steal bits of other people's so I actually have a chance to try things.
posted by sciatrix at 2:26 PM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Until about five years ago, there was a wonderful bakery in Brooklyn Park at 85th and Broadway that made real banana flips, though the banana was infused or something into the creamy filling stuff. Until I had one, I would have assumed that a "real banana flip" was meh, but I bet it was truly terrific.

As far as the State Fair goes, the occasion year that I attend, I favor the less-huge venues (e.g., Harry Singh's). The Sweet Martha's chocolate chip cookies are buzzful, much like the way people will talk up Krispy Kreme doughnuts: all warm doughnuts are great. When they get cold, they get ordinary. Same with Sweet Martha's cookies. I was kind of surprised to find they were the big gorilla.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 3:01 PM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's so weird how one can eat a literal half-bucket of Sweet Martha's and still feel like there's room for more. Are black holes an ingredient? How does that work?

My "must haves" every year are: the honey ice-cream from the Bee side of the Agriculture building, an apple tart from the Apple side of the Ag building, and some corn on the cob. In my youth, when I had a cast-iron stomach, I would try just about anything new on a stick. My dad is the same way. All we needed to see was a big flashing "NEW!!" sign and we'd be in line.

My mother, on the other hand, would drag us straight to the "All-you-can-drink Milk" building, where we would pay our 25 cents to get a cup. She would then take the cups and carefully fold them and put them in her purse for later. Every time we'd pass the booth she'd whip out the cups. "Who wants more milk? It's free!".
posted by Gray Duck at 3:19 PM on July 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

interestingly, chocolate chip cookies predate commercially available chocolate chips - you had to chop the chocolate by hand before - and both are only around 70ish years old.
posted by The Whelk at 3:39 PM on July 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’ve never needed to buy a bucket of cookies from Sweet Martha’s, because ever year, someone on my bus back to the park-and-ride in my neighborhood realizes they can’t eat that many cookies and passes the bucket around on our bus. MMmmmmmmm warm cookies of regret
posted by heurtebise at 3:43 PM on July 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I like to bring my bucket of cookies with me to the milk booth, where you can get serious about your eating. I also used to live in an apartment on Larpenteur right by the fairgrounds, and could listen to most of the concerts for free. Good times!
posted by wintermind at 5:35 PM on July 27, 2019

I've been to the fair almost every year I've been alive. I've had braces as an adult for the past two years and they just came off and my son is just starting to get the hang of eating solid food along with having enough teeth to chew things.

It's been at least 30 years since I've been this excited to go to the fair.
posted by VTX at 6:32 PM on July 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

Nostalgia moment.

Back in the late 1960’s, Kid’s Day at the Minnesota State Fair was always on Thursday. Admission was free and one could purchase Peter’s hot dogs in the food building for $.25 each. The root beer vendor next to the penny arcade charged $.05 for a 16 oz. root beer.

A $.55 lunch that lasted until it was time to jump on the 5A bus with a transfer to the 3A bus and home to the east side of St. Paul.

The $.15 bus fare (one way $.15 more to get home) and the $.55 lunch left several dollars to spend on the $.25 rides on the Royal American Shows midway.

Late August was always the best of times despite the looming return to academic pursuits.
posted by mygoditsbob at 8:14 PM on July 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Things I always get at the fair:

corn fritters at the fried green tomatoes booth
sweetcorn ice cream at the blue barn I think? The place with the little movie theatre showing old black and whites.
a gyro because gyros are great

Other than that, I just share whatever other people get. I haven't had Sweet Martha's for years, mainly because it's always so hot that hot cookies don't seem appealing, and I also make better chocolate chip cookies myself so a bit of snobbery as well.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:28 PM on July 27, 2019

Also, we often have a mefi meetup at the fair so if you're so inclined, join us! (I'm going to post it now)
posted by triggerfinger at 8:29 PM on July 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

We went to our fair (not Minnesota) earlier in the week.

I realized what I like best about the fair* isn't so much the food or the 4H but the people watching.
The usual events we go to throughout the year (home show, art festival, etc) tend to attract baiscally the same demographic.
But the fair, at the fair, you get farmers, rodeo fans, rednecks, hippies, yuppies and soccer moms.
In short, you get a cross section of the entire state, which is wonderful.

In the morning, you see the old folks and parents with young kids who get in free before noon.
In the afternoon, there are families with older kids and people trying to beat the crowd.
Once the evening comes, you see the groups of adolescent girls following around that one cute carnie and the groups of adolescent boys trying hard to pretend they aren't into the adolescent girls.
Late at night, you get the zombie familes determined to get every bit of value out of that ride bracelet and the too cool for school dudes acting like they didn't almost hurl on the Zipper.

I love the fair, it's humanity.

*Other than the lights. A midway lit up at night is magical.
posted by madajb at 10:07 PM on July 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Last year, the food vendors at the fair made more than $41 million in revenue, plus another $11.3 million in beer sales.

I was surprised that beer was such a small percentage, but it sounds like it is a relatively recent addition and is growing fast.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:37 AM on July 28, 2019

Aaaaah, I've never even been to Minnesota but I'm going for a conference at the end of August, which just happens to line up with fair time, and I am completely stoked on this new (delicious!) experience!
posted by redsparkler at 8:13 AM on July 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

The sad part of Sweet Martha's is that the next day the remaining cookies in that tub are pretty mediocre. When served hot out of the oven, they're to die for. Sitting in a cubicle the next day they'll get ignored.

When we lived in Minnesota, the greatest state fair tragedy was when the hot brownie booth moved to the Food Barn. See, it had been across the street from the All-You-Can-Drink ice cold milk stand Gray Duck talks about above. Picture it, a steaming hot brownie followed by ice cold milk. It was heaven on earth. And then someone, maybe the brownie vendor, broke up this romance and we were forever heartbroken.

I haven't been to the fair since moving back to North Dakota (our fair could be hidden in a corner of the MN one). When it's fair time here the locals get all excited. They ask if we're going. Most times I just shake my head and say, "you don't even know what a state fair can be".
posted by Ber at 7:22 PM on July 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a hard time believing that 2 million ticket number. The Orange County fair draws 1.5 million. If the OC was a city, it would be the third largest in the US, and it draws a shitload of people from Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside as well.
posted by Brocktoon at 5:19 AM on July 29, 2019

I mean, I can't prove that two million people visit the fair, but I'm also wondering how/why the lying would work, especially since it would have to go on for years. It's a really big fair. a reasonable number of people go several times, they're probably counting staff tickets and people do come from out of state - it's not unusual to drive in from Wisconsin, for example.

The fair is a big deal here. I never, ever went to a state fair living in Illinois, nor did I know anyone who did. A state fair - that was for way out in the country or something, right? What could there possibly be to interest me at a state fair?

The fairgrounds are literally in St. Paul, which boosts attendance a lot. I could bike from work to the fair if the spirit moved me. It's just, like, eeeeeevvvverybody goes to the fair - 4H kids, disaffected punk rockers, the young, the old. And everyone knows someone who performs at the fair, because there's a lot of small-scale entertainment. My old housemate used to play shows there for a few years.
posted by Frowner at 5:59 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

The fairgrounds are literally literally in Falcon Heights, formerly Rose Township, and were never a part of St. Paul.
posted by look busy at 12:06 PM on July 29, 2019

I am now totally nostalgic for the All You Can Drink Milk. (Best milk on the planet, and I am not normally a big milk drinker.)

No longer in Minnesota, alas, and I pine for the State Fair every year.
posted by jenettsilver at 12:06 PM on July 29, 2019

The fairgrounds are literally literally in Falcon Heights, formerly Rose Township, and were never a part of St. Paul.

All these years I've been so wrong! Well, I guess I can bike to Falcon Heights from work - that does sound more impressive than just biking to St. Paul, anyway.
posted by Frowner at 2:10 PM on July 29, 2019

...the greatest state fair tragedy was when the hot brownie booth moved to the Food Barn

I remember the year this moved and I've been decrying the tragedy of it ever since. I shake my head every time we pass by the spot where it used to be. When I was young my family would lay a blanket in the shaded grass after getting some brownies and a glass of milk. Then my brother or I would be dispatched for a fresh cup.

You can still get cookies at the Sweet Martha's by the grandstand and if you walk quickly you can get some milk while the cookies are still warm. My now-wife and I did just that when we were dating and went to the fair together. I was holding a glass of milk and the cone of cookies and my wife had her own glass so she would dunk a cookie and then feed it to me. One of the old ladies dispensing milk remarked that it was adorable and she was right.

a reasonable number of people go several times

My father goes twice every year. Once early in the day and into the afternoon and once in the evening "for dinner". It's great to go to the fair with him because he knows where everything is. If you've got a craving for something, he's got you covered.

My grandfather always claimed that when my father was younger he and his brother drank so much milk at the all-you-can-drink milk stand that they actually cut them off. They really liked milk and, again according to my grandfather, the milk-man once asked if they were bathing in it.

The fair is a really big deal, the grounds are huge and they're packed on the weekends all day and very busy every weekday. We usually go on a Tuesday or Wednesday because those are the days with the lowest attendance and the crowds are still just HUGE.
posted by VTX at 6:39 PM on August 1, 2019

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