Even for a region of the country renowned for the wholesomeness and popularity of its state fairs, the Minnesota and Iowa fairs deserve special recognition. While the Iowa State Fair has had books, musicals, and a movie made about it, Minnesota has got sheer size on its side — it has the highest average daily attendance rate in the nation.
In an effort to crown an undisputed champion — at least as far as food is concerned — a comparison of the two fairs’ edibles seemed appropriate. From each rival, we sampled two fair standbys, one new item to each fair, and one longtime favorite. (In all the composite photos taken for this story, the Minnesota item is shown on the left, Iowa on the right.)
Judging criteria: Dog flavor, cornbread flavor, freshness, and overall quality.
Minnesota’s corn dog had a light, sweet batter that was cooked perfectly crisp on the outside, leaving just the right amount of corn batter goodness on the inside. The oil was clearly fresh, and the dog had great flavor, with hints of mace that delicious dogs boast.
Iowa’s, too, had a crispy outside, but was more overdone than Minnesota’s (you can see the slightly burned edges at the top in the photo), although it maintained a sweet and moist inside, perhaps indicating the frying oil temperature was off. Its dog worked well with the batter, but it wasn’t particularly flavorful. It earns points for being hand-sticked and battered, but not enough to take this round.
Corndog winner: Minnesota, for a more flavorful dog and more evenly cooked cornbread coating.
Standbys: Cheese Curds
Judging criteria: Cheese flavor, freshness, and overall quality
There are only a small handful of cheese curd vendors at either fair, but if location count isn’t an indicator, the wait times in long lines are evidence enough of their popularity.
Minnesota’s cheese curds (multiple locations and vendors; we sampled The Original Cheese Curds at Underwood and Carnes) were delicious — still hot and greasy (OK, very greasy), with just the right amount of saltiness to let a decent cheese flavor come through. And they were still squeaky, to boot.
Curiously enough, Iowa’s cheese curds (multiple locations; we sampled the ones at the Midway entrance) are sold by the same vendor as the ones we sampled at the Minnesota State Fair. The difference: they add flour before frying the curds in Minnesota, but they don’t in Iowa. The flour reduces the saltiness, and in theory, would diminish the flavor because it’s a filler. But not so with cheese curds, apparently. Iowa’s curds, although crispy and fresh, were tasteless and “all oil,” according to my travel companion.
Cheese curd winner: Minnesota, for superior cheese flavor, although it was a close victory.
New fair item: The Frydog vs. Frozen S’mores on-a-stick
Judging criteria: Gastronomic innovation, flavor, long-term potential, and portability.
Minnesota’s Frydog, found at Blue Moon Drive-In (Carnes and Chambers), is a hot dog-on-a-stick that has been coated in smashed waffle fries, deep fried, and served with your choice of dipping sauce. It’s the love child of the all-American meal of corndogs and French fries. Unfortunately, this seemingly tremendous combination of two of the most-loved Fair items just doesn’t deliver. The fry coating is uneven, leaving some spots chewy and over-cooked while others are a thick pillow of mashed potato. And with an uneven fry coating comes issues with portability: The shell started coming off after the first bite. By the last two inches (of a roughly six-inch dog), it had completely fallen off and I was using my hands. If not for the basket, it wouldn’t have lasted even that long. The bright spot? The dog was the best I’ve had at a fair all year. Clearly 100% beef, the flavor shone through, one delicious, salty, beefy bite after another. The dipping sauces were a nice addition, but once again failing on the portability front, arriving in condiment cups. Innovation aside, it’s unlikely to rise to the same ranks as other treats, such as Fudge Puppies or funnel cakes.
Iowa’s new Fair item, frozen s’mores-on-a-stick (Pavillion, street level), were equally lackluster. The item really wasn’t frozen (lukewarm, at best), so the marshmallow was sticky; the ratio of graham cracker-to-marshmallow- to-chocolate was thrown off by coating the whole thing in chocolate. Moreover: It was even less portable than the frydog, falling off of its stick after two bites (of four). You’d be better off making them in your microwave if you can’t get your campfire fix. It’s a terrible value proposition at $3.50, and, overall, it doesn’t stack up against even the underwhelming Frydog.
New fair item winner: Minnesota, for innovation and a hot dog with fantastic flavor.
Long-time favorite unique item: Sweet Martha’s Cookies vs. the Wonder Bar
Judging criteria: Flavor, portability, and its future success potential.
While researching the Iowa State Fair, the Wonder Bar (outside the east entrance of the Varied Industries building) came up as a must-eat on multiple lists — and so it made ours. But high expectations were dashed: it’s wholly unremarkable. Unless you have a disturbing appreciation for plastic-y chocolate covering plastic-y ice cream, this is not the frozen treat for you. Only the peanut coating had flavor, but you can find something equal to or better than it just about anywhere else at the Fair — not to mention your local grocery gas station’s novelty treat freezer. Sure, it was on a stick, but it was ridiculously difficult to bite into, with rock-hard composition and awkwardly large and square build. Not one fairgoer under 70 was spotted eating this item. Apparently still in existence only due to nostalgia, not because of its quality or deliciousness, it seems likely that this one will fade away shortly after the last of the pre-freezer generation.
In comparison, Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies (two locations: Dan Patch east of Liggett, and Carnes between Nelson and Underwood) are delicious and top-notch warm, gooey treat at the Fair. Their portability in cones and buckets at least equals that of the Wonder Bar. They’re fresh-baked, with crispy edges and soft middles. Are these as good as homemade, or even Pillsbury refrigerated dough? This will offend some readers, but, no, not really. But they are exactly what you expect, year after year, and there’s something warm and fuzzy about toting your ginormous $14 plastic bucket of hot cookies down to the all-you-can-drink Moo Booth and smiling at your friends and family while people-watching. And as long as little kids continue to enjoy massive quantities of chocolate chip cookies, Sweet Martha’s will probably be there to serve them.
Fair favorite winner: Minnesota, for not flat-out sucking, as well as having the rare ability to bring whole families together around one food.
Meal value comparison:
Flavor panel aside, was one fair a better economic decision than the other? To find out, we compared what we’re deeming a standard meal at the fair, consisting of a corndog, large soda, regular basket of cheese curds, and regular sno-cone. The findings:
Large soda: $2.50
Regular basket of cheese curds: $5
Regular sno-cone: $2.50
Large soda: $3
Regular basket of cheese curds: $5.50
Regular sno-cone: $1.50
Best value winner: Tie
The verdict: Even accounting for a possible bias caused by proximity and history, the Minnesota State Fair was the obvious winner, taking every possible category. The Iowa State Fair is a four-hour drive from Minneapolis, and one that proved not particularly worthwhile. Spend the money you save on gas not driving there on an extra round of corndogs (with a side of French fries!) for the family. You’ll thank me for it.