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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.