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.
(page 2 of 2)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Andy Bennett is a Duluth-based freelance writer.