Nothing surpasses the eye-opening, mouth-watering, sensory overload of the food choices available at America’s summertime state fairs. Who says you can’t deep fry cotton candy?
Summer’s technically over, but the season’s not complete without one last tour of the most iconic of all the cultural institutions that are part of our national heritage: The state fair.
Most people don’t realize this, but the American-style state fair as the formula has evolved — lots of farm animals, offbeat competitions, theme-park rides and a midway loaded with high-calorie “food” items — doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. We may not be number 1 in educational achievement or even competitive in soccer, but the rest of the world can eat their hearts out with envy, because no one does fairs like the USA.
And given the assortment of comestibles available on most midways, there probably is something called “Eat Your Heart Out, Foreigners,” which would be a chicken-fried, chocolate-coated slab of pure mayonnaise.
On that note, let’s take a culinary tour of America’s premier state fairs, starting with the biggest one of all.
The Texas State Fair in Dallas. The annual “Big Tex” event is the country’s largest state fair. Everything is bigger in Texas, and this fair goes to great lengths to showcase the Lone Star State’s obsession with size. To be sure, the fair offers a 212-foot tall Texas Star Ferris Wheel, plus dozens of musicians, magicians and animals involved in almost 100 live performances a day.
But no fair passes muster (mustard?) without some serious stomach-stretching specialties, and Big Tex offers such delights as fried peaches and cream, funnel cake beer and even deep-fried cotton candy — not to mention the Big Tex Choice Award handed out this year for a concoction called The Fried Gulf Shrimp Boil, which consists of shrimp (naturally), potatoes, corn, onions and lemons — all packed into a ball and — of course — deep-fried.
You know what they call Shrimp Boil, funnel cake beer and deep-fried cotton candy at Big Tex?
The Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul. Competitions define this fair’s culture, as judging goes beyond standard livestock shows to include rulings on Christmas trees — remember, winter lasts nine months up there — bees, honey and flowers. Or fairgoers can check out a butter sculpture crafted to look like each year’s Princess Kay of the Milky Way, the young woman crowned as the official ambassador for the Minnesota dairy industry.
That culinary creation is just for viewing, but as for edibles, the Minnesota State Fair doesn’t disappoint. I mean, where else can you enjoy a camel meat slider? And these mini-burgers are, in fact, made with actual camel meat, which the vendor renders quite palatable by smothering the sliders in spicy mayo, white American cheese and caramelized onions.
Tasty enough to make every day at the fair hump day.
The Arizona State Fair in Phoenix. This fair’s held in October, a timeframe that may seem unusual, but with average daytime temperatures that can still exceed 90 or 95 degrees, believe me: October in Phoenix is mid-July anywhere else. Which makes the fair’s menu of deep-fried dough (formally known as frybread), red velvet funnel cake, tamales and other Mexican specialties feel like perfect summertime fare.
The show also features the Arizona Milk Producers’ Milking Parlor, where visitors get to milk a real cow — something actual farmers don’t even do anymore — and such events as duck races (with live ducks), an All-Indian Rodeo and a comedian who juggles meat cleavers during his stand-up sessions.
Now that I’d pay to see.
The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. August is a terrific time told hold an outdoor event in Iowa, because it’s definitely the hottest, most humid couple weeks of what’s typically a scorching Midwest summer. Don’t worry though — the fair’s famous butter sculptures never melt (they’re kept refrigerated), although the iconic Butter Cow was defaced by animal activists last year when they sprayed “Freedom for All” in red paint on the life-size, “udderly” life-like creation.
Of course, Iowa’s State Fair includes classic events, such as the Big Boar Contest, a “parade of supersized swine,” as fair promotional copy describes it, and plenty of butter sculptures of celebrities, some fictional (Harry Potter), some genuine (Neil Armstrong).
Did I mention that Iowans love butter? When those hunger pangs strike, visitors can top off their fair adventure with a heapin’ helping of fried butter, a delicacy that pairs nicely flavor with chicken-fried bacon or chocolate-covered cookies-on-a-stick.
You really can’t go wrong with anything deep-fried or chocolate-covered on a stick.
The Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis (Milwaukee). The Wisconsin State Fair website touts its trendy gluten-free food listings. Yeah, yeah, but the fair’s far better known for its signature culinary distinction: It’s the home of the original cream puff, which has been sold at the fair since 1924. According to the fair’s PR people, “These decadent cream-filled pastries are so popular, they’re now sold through an exclusive drive-thru lane” — and people have to place their orders 24 hours in advance.
The Badger State carnival is also renowned for The Sporkies, awards that honor the “fun foods” at the fair, such as the “Fat Elvis,” a peanut butter cup dunked in banana batter, deep-fried and served with bacon on top. But that creation didn’t win, because it was up against this year’s winners: a peanut butter-bacon-bison burger, deep-fried maple-bacon cookie dough and a Granny Smith caramel-apple shake.
Hey — one of those items doesn’t belong with the other two.
The Ohio State Fair in Columbus. The Buckeye State’s exhibitions and events blend “contemporary interests with classic state fair staples.” Translation: Some trendy exhibits like a giant LEGO display to entertain city kids bored with checking out livestock, and an All-Breed Dog Agility competition formatted like the cable TV show that first spawned the concept.
But more noteworthy than special events is the fair food. Nobody can wander for hours along a stifling, congested midway on a sticky summer afternoon and not succumb to the need to feed their faces with goodies we never get to enjoy at home. Along with the elephant ears and corndogs, the Ohio State Fair boasts a Pork Rib-Off competition to determine the state’s best ribs, pulled pork and barbecue sauce — the best part being that after the judges have sampled the food, fairgoers are welcome to try it for free!
Now that’s entertainment.
The Great New York State Fair in Syracuse includes plenty of farm animal judging, a petting zoo and a baby rabbit exhibit — all good, wholesome family fun. But of more relevance are the fair’s New York Wine & Cheese Seminars (with plenty of free sampling) and the annual Beef Day contest, in which grill masters compete in a “best burger” contest — an event that’s staged right before the main live cattle show begins.
You just can’t script this stuff.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.