Everyone wanted me to try the deep-fried butter: I told friends that I’d be heading to the Minnesota State Fair, and almost everyone challenged me to stomach that dish, since it is, in their minds, the ne plus ultra of over-the-top State Fair Food. Sadly, deep-fried butter doesn’t really exist, at least not in Minnesota. Turns out that particular delicacy is exclusive to the Iowa State Fair. But butterless though it may be, the Minnesota State Fair is still the country’s second largest (Texas is No. 1), and my trip held the promise of plenty of other stuff to eat: things like Spam burgers, deep-fried mashed potatoes, something called “Puff Daddy on a Stick,” and, oh yeah, camel sliders.
I had three days to eat my way through this thing (the twelve-day fair runs through Labor Day). I pushed past throngs of people — 103,738 attendees on day one — and focused only on food I probably wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. That meant I’d be passing up the “world’s greatest French fries” in favor of things like cranberry cream-cheese wontons and pot-roast sundae.
It was a relatively easy course to chart since each year’s new food items are a big selling point, touted on the fair’s official website and in brochures. Turns out “good” isn’t really the target adjective most vendors aim for with their new things. “Dare-worthy” might be more appropriate. So, the first thing I tried were “lamb fries,” which were actually deep-fried testicles: fine, but more novelty than must-try culinary experience.
Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern’s brand-new food truck, AZ Canteen, was there, handing out goat-sausage samples and, as if to prove my dare-worthy theory, filming people brave enough to try fermented-herring surströmming, a dish so pungent that airlines like British Airways and Air France consider it a “dangerous weapon” and won’t allow it on their planes. When I approached the scene, a woman was having a noticeably difficult time keeping a single bite down.
There were other things that were gross, but wouldn’t immediately make you puke: a burger with a patty made entirely of Spam, three-pound strips of maple-glazed bacon (with optional chocolate dipping sauce), the “Puff Daddy on a Stick” (Thai sausage wrapped in puff pastry), and deep-fried alligator meat that, yes, tasted like chicken. Sadly, I can’t weigh in on those camel-meat burgers or something called “beef-tongue caramelos,” since both were only made available after I left. Maybe the camel meat got held up in customs.
Lots of fairgoers just seem determined to seek out food that promises to seriously fuck them up, either with sheer fatty excess, weapons-grade funk (see above), or spice so strong that it might forever singe your tastebuds. I met one visitor, Mary Chabot, who was disappointed that a jerk chicken dish wasn’t spicy enough. I offered her one of my jalapeño poppers, which was wrapped in bacon and stuffed with sausage and cheese (practically diet food by fair standards), but one vendor’s viper jerky might have been closer to what she was looking for: The habanero-spiced jerky — actually beef, not snake meat — is so hot that its makers require eaters to both be 18 and sign a waiver, a move that’s as much marketing gimmick as warning. It was so incendiary that I only ate one of the two pieces I bought. When I reached for water, a clerk frantically stopped me. “Drink milk! Water will just make it worse!” For $1, you can get unlimited regular and chocolate milk from the All The Milk You Can Drink station — just the thing to wash down habanero jerky, sausage-stuffed bacon peppers, and lamb testicles.
Almost none of the food is delicious in the classic sense. Despite all the culinary one-upmanship on display, there are few revelations to be had here. The food is fine, because most of it’s fried, but the whole thing offers little in the way of new taste experiences. These concoctions are either fatty, salty, spicy, crunchy, or sour (in the form of copious pickles). Usually they’re a combination of all of those, and usually that combination is served on a stick. Taken as a whole, the experience is just too much.
In fact, the best things to seek out are the tried-and-true classics: some of the creamiest, freshest full-fat soft-serve I’ve ever eaten, the fair’s justifiably famous deep-fried cheese curds (I ate an entire portion, probably about 4,500 calories, in awe of how rich they were), and giant turkey legs that are as big as people’s heads. I grabbed one of those on the advice of Erin Poster, who hit the fair with her husband and 5-month-old son. Her endorsement of the leg managed to sum up the entire State Fair experience: “I felt gross after eating it, but it was good.”