My First Trip EVER to the Minnesota State Fair

Susan Pagani / Heavy Table
Susan Pagani / Heavy Table

Saturday August 29, 2009

10:43 pm
The phone rings. I am in bed mentally preparing for the day ahead: my first trip ever to the Minnesota State Fair. Answering, I find it is my friend Laura. “I hear you are going to the Fair tomorrow,” she says. “There’s a few things you should know.”

Laura is from Tennessee, but she has been going to the Fair since she was in pigtails and it was a traditional part of her family’s annual trip to Minnesota. Now that she lives here, she has ritualized the event to the extent that she could walk across the fair blindfolded, making her way from exhibit to food vendor with nary a bump nor a bruise.

Arguably, that makes her an expert. I dutifully take notes, sketching a loose map of what I think she’s describing on a Post-it® note… and then, in the spirit of adventure, I stick it to the tallboy mirror, where it will stay, useless to anyone for several days. Maybe not my wisest moment.

August 30, 2009
12:35 pm
Well, I’m not a complete idiot. My husband William and I follow Laura’s parking advice and head to the 4th Street ramp at the University of Minnesota, where parking is free and ample. Within 10 minutes of parking, I’m on a luxury bus heading to the fair.

We sit behind a troupe of college-age women in town from Iowa. They are also new to the fair, and in their youthful good looks gather free advice like flies:
“First time?” says one local woman. “Wait ‘til you see the food. Oh my. Get cheese curds. No, get a Scotch Egg — that’s my favorite.”

“Oh I don’t like that,” says another. “It’s pickled. It’s like a bar food. So rubbery!”

“No it’s not, no,” says the first. “Listen: It’s a hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage and deep fried. It’s delicious. Very English, very old traditional English.”
The youngsters look at each other, whispering. “If it’s English, why is it called Scottish? I hope it’s not pickled. That’s just gross.”
After two stops, the bus is packed to standing with giddy fair-goers. We pass multiple stops, watching pissed-off would-be passengers gesture WTF as we roll by.

1:05 pm

The Miracle of Birth barn is a cacophony. There are people of all ages cheering on a calf, wet with birth and trying gallantly to stand on its brand new legs; there is a rodeo-style announcer explaining the concept of colostrum to the crowd; and somewhere, there is a chicken. Oddly, the birthing animals are silent, and though the baby pigs are adorable rooting around the farrow pens for something to suckle, their quietude makes us slightly woozy and we leave almost immediately.

Susan Pagani / Heavy Table

1:20 pm

Susan Pagani / Heavy Table
Susan Pagani / Heavy Table

We round the corner and — Good lord! Who knew the fair grounds were a small city! Here are permanent buildings, named streets, the MPR radio station, and cheerleaders, lots of cheerleaders. We are carried forward with the crowd.

1:30 pm

Like good swimmers, we push sidewise out of the crowd’s undertow and make our way to Fresh French Fries. In the back, red-faced teenagers peel and cut billions potatoes and fry them until they are just brown on the outside, steamy hot and tender on the inside. We douse them liberally with vinegar and are temporarily comforted.

1:50 pm

It’s a little like Frogger, but we dart back across the street and hit the haunted house, where I scream like a girl and dive for the door when a ghoul grabs my calf muscle. It’s fun, but there are no snacks, so we head for the Dairy Building.

2:15 pm

Butter pats falling like dominoes, a butter slide, the world’s largest butter churn… I know, we’ll sculpt Princess Kay of the Milky Way in butter — in fact, why not do the whole court!

Maybe that’s not how it went, but one does wonder how they came to giant butter heads. They are kind of beautiful and we find ourselves pondering the idea of temporary art — should we eat it? Let it melt? Is a food head morbid? — but I notice the Minnesotans are completely unimpressed.

“She looks cold, “ one woman remarks. “I like that puffy coat.”

“It’s hot. I wish she was carving my head,” returns her companion. “Let’s get a malt.”

Good idea. We purchase a strawberry-rhubarb malt and effectively, nay joyously, bury our existential-butter-art crisis in sweet-tart dairy goodness.

2:45 pm
Where has all the Minnesota nice gone, long time passing.

Waiting for William to purchase a Jamaican patty in the International Bazaar — I don’t know what was in there, but it tasted unpleasantly of pureed tuna surprise — a crowd suddenly forms.

A burly fellow very nearly tumps me into a trash bin as he elbows through. His eyes are utterly devoid of expression, as if he’s in a fried food trance. Zombies on the fair grounds… surely it’s been done.

2:50 pm

Holy Land lemonade: thick with lemon pulp and mint, mouth-puckering sweet and so, so refreshing.

We visit the Agriculture Building, where despite a million variety of gladiolus and an awesome portrait of Farrah Fawcett in legumes, I lose my heart to a row of sixth place miniature purple corn cobs. Super cute.

Susan Pagani / Heavy Table
Susan Pagani / Heavy Table

4:00 pm

After a lot of wandering, we are now stranded at the corner of Dan Patch and Underwood with no idea where we’ve been and the uncomfortable feeling that we are missing all the good stuff.

There’s a chipmunk chasing me around and, with all these food stands blinking at me, I’m starting to panic about eating something on a stick.

4:25 pm

Walleye-on-a-stick – not bad! Lamb-on-stick, even better! The latter is marinated in something like a sweet, herby teriyaki sauce and, though cooked to well, is still tender.

William works his way through his first helping of fried cheese curds, which he professes to love. Why? “They’re deep fried and cheesy.”

5:00 pm

We ride the Sky Glider to the top of Underwood, where we suckered into supersizing our Diet Cokes and, as a consequence, spend an inordinate amount of time talking tractors with Jim — and waiting in loooong lines to go to the loo.

6:30 pm

Sweet Martha! Your cookies are worth all of the 30 minutes we spend in line listening to a crowd of teenage girls lament the cancellation of Kelly Clarkson’s concert.

“Am I kidding? No, dude, I wish I was kidding, I’m so not kidding.”

The server, a dimple-cheeked boy utterly pleased with his lot in Fair life, stacks the little morsels into our cone like Jenga pieces, and we eat every one. I dunk mine into a soy latte from French Meadow and suck them down.  I am both satiated and relieved to have made it to at least one of the famous Minnesota State Fair eateries.

7:00 pm
We have been eating all day yet William, confident and unfazed by the $25 ticket, climbs aboard the Sling Shot — essentially a ball on a rubber band. He does not hurl, but instead emerges elated. I think he’s a little in love with the Fair.

Susan Pagani / Heavy Table
Susan Pagani / Heavy Table

7:30 pm

On the way to the bus, we get lost and end up in the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum, where we arrive just in time to see the miniature horses burning down the south rail. It’s the end of a long, food-filled day, but I could swear the man announces them as the “roaster class, weighing in at just 200 pounds.”

9:00 pm

One last corn dog before we get on the bus. “Now that was good,” says William.

Susan Pagani / Heavy Table
Susan Pagani / Heavy Table


  1. Sami

    Your post was a treat to read as I just took my first trip to the fair this year too. I’m an out-of-towner so I got recommendations on what to eat while at the fair. I tried the cheese curds, corn dog, Sweet Martha’s cookies and a malt from the dairy building. I loved it all!

  2. artsy

    Thanks for the very fun post- I am not new to the Fair, but didn’t grow up here and still feel a bit like a …visitor. I did find some very good food this year including the crepes with fresh strawberries and real whipped cream, and the risotto poppers from French Meadow..

  3. Carla

    I loved this walk through the MN State Fair. I loved seeing the iconic image of Farrah in legumes. “Now that was good.”

  4. Kelly

    What a great snapshot of the fair, Susan. Especially fun to see it from new eyes. Hope it was enough to enchant you both to stay in MN for decades to come!

  5. Laura

    I hope you fell in love with the Fair, too. Wish I could have been there for your first time!

Comments are closed.