State fair season is here

The cicadas are buzzing, signaling the wind-down of summer in the US. Another sign that summer is drawing to a close is the opening of state fair season. Across the country, each state celebrates with a combination of agricultural exhibits, carnival rides, concerts, and, of course, food. Lots and lots of food. 

Apple pie

People flock to stands selling a variey of goodies, which in years past were often deep fried and served on a stick. More recently, the trends have shifted to reflect broader culinary developments. For instance, when bacon was being put in and on everything a few years back, offerings at the fair included chocolate-covered bacon along with other bacon-flavored snacks.

The explosion of food trucks and the street food renaissance seems to have influenced today’s state fair food offerings, as the list of new foods from the Minnesota State Fair shows. None of the new items is “on a stick”, and upscale influences seem to have taken over from the old-school days where vendors competed with each other in size and audacity of the things they deep fried. 

I use Minnesota as an example because it’s the largest state fair by daily attendance, and second nationwide in overall attendance (only Texas draws more total people because its fair lasts longer). I’ve also attended the ‘Great Minnesota Get Together’ and experienced firsthand the bellyache that goes with trying too many of these rich foods at one time. That’s why my new strategy for state fair visits is to avoid overeating and instead get a vicarious food thrill by going through the exhibition halls. 

Most state fairs have competitions for the biggest and best garden vegetables, but they also have contests for the best pies, cakes, cookies, bars, breads, quickbreads, canned goods, and preserves. The displays provide a fascinating glimpse into home cooking and they offer ideas to inspire your own baking and canning. Because the entry rules are so strict, only the truly dedicated participate (I am not that dedicated). 

Wandering through the racks of foods invokes a feeling of nostalgia as I contemplate the generations of home cooks who have invested hard work to create a towering layer cake, golden loaf of bread, or perfectly set jelly to exhibit at the fair. Through the decades, the act of cooking has created a thread that binds people who have had markedly different life experiences and world views. I imagine a woman like my great-grandmother standing in a sweltering kitchen, watching the oven, waiting to pull out the bread at just the right moment. 

As foreign as my great-grandmothers’ lives and daily routines seem to my modern sensibilities, I can fully comprehend the satisfaction they gained when the bread rose tall in the loaf pan or when the shelves were stacked with glistening jars of jam after a long, hot day of canning. Browsing through the state fair exhibits makes me feel both more connected to the past and to others who share my passion in the present. 

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  • lgroom  on  August 22, 2018

    Darcie — just went to the WI state fair earlier this month and to my local county fair this past weekend. Cream puffs are the WI claim to fame and this treat really ought to be illegal. Wandered through the exhibition halls and became weepy nostalgic. I spent my formative years in 4H, both showing cattle and later judging (on hoof and hanging) and did both sewing and baking and canning exhibits. I could become a rabid supporter of 4H.

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