A very long time ago, my roommate had a gaming console, Nintendo 64 I think. At some point, we stumbled upon the video game titled Gauntlet Legends. It was considerably more fun than it should have been and we played it for dozens of hours more than we should have ever considered healthy.
Perhaps, I have a love of gauntlets or the word gauntlet or maybe I just like to go on wild adventures that involve consuming excessive amounts of food - primarily focusing on sugar and fat.
Enter the 2018 Minnesota State Fair Food Gauntlet.
To set the stage for my experience, I feel it is helpful and perhaps comedic to consider that prior to my experience on Labor Day weekend in the year 2018 A.D., I had never gone further into the fairgrounds than Sweet Martha's Cookies. In fact, I had only twice in my entire life visited the State Fair and on both occasions I went directly to Sweet Martha's and then immediately left.
For this, my first proper excursion, I enlisted my wife, two good friends, and what I would call a Food Sherpa. The food Sherpa leads this excursion annually, but this was my first time joining the party that would seek to ascend Mt. Fair Food.
Wake Up: 6:15 a.m. It's going to be a day, but to limit the suffering of (being surrounded by) the masses, one must be the earliest bird to the pile of delicious deep fried worms. Get some coffee, avoid food. Any caloric intake at this point will only sabotage the rest of the day and your experience.
On the Road: 7:25 a.m. Sure, it would be ideal to get rolling much earlier if you're going to wake up so early, but getting coffee, stopping by an ATM, gassing your car, making sure your phones are charged, etc. - these are important components of State Fair survival. You simply cannot rush them.
8:35 a.m.: Rain. But of course, we knew this was coming. Rain jackets were packed and this strikes no fear in our hearts. When you're preparing to attack the State Fair, you must factor in all elements, particularly rain and/or snow, surely to be followed by intense heat. After all, we are talking about late summer/early fall in the upper Midwest.
9 a.m.: The weather and holiday weekend have combined to completely eliminate traffic, gets us a parking spot just one block from the fairgrounds and has us sprinting through a downpour to the front gate. We're soaked, but we're in, the streets are completely empty, and there are no lines at any of the vendors.
9:15 a.m.: We begin our ascent. Timelines blur from here, but fortunately I was able to visually document almost all of the food consumed. Let us begin. There are very few rules given on how to survive the fair, and here is a list of all that you need to survive:
- Everyone takes turns buying. This saves everyone a lot of money and allows you to sample more things.
- Everyone shares the one thing. If someone loves it, they might have more than the others. If someone doesn't like it, they might only try a bite or two. It all evens out and this way you don't get too full or overwhelm yourself too early.
- If you see something you want, get it. Don't leave the fair thinking about how bad you wanted to try a turkey leg after walking by the stand three times but never stopping.
- Divide and conquer. Always travel in your group, but when you approach vendors with long lines establish a meeting point and then split your group so you can cut your waiting in line time in half. It's also nice because you can split the group however you want and spend time getting to know your Food Sherpa or catching up with old friends and new acquaintances.
Our Food Sherpa had arrived earlier and was waiting for us upon arrival. He had already acquired the first food item of the day: Carolina Reaper dumplings with a Carolina Reaper-infused marinara. It was good and pepper was present almost exclusively in name and the spicy factor was less than that of a mid-level Habanero. Still, watching the two members of our party who cannot handle spicy food try it was amazing as they both found it to be very intense.
Our first group stop was the Australian potatoes. The group selected them with ranch dressing. I didn't get a picture, but it was alright. If we skip this vendor in the future, I won't miss them. The portions were insane. We got a small and it was more than enough for the five of us. One of our group dove in and ended up with ranch-covered hands. I do not recommend covering your hands in ranch dressing.
Before getting more food, we did the rounds through the cows, pigs, goats, and horses. This gave us a bit more time while the weather had a fit. The size of some of the animals was intense. There was a 1,040-pound pig. That's too much pig, man.
The rain had taken a pause, but there was still absolutely no line for anything. Using one of Food Sherpa's rules, we split the group in two. My group hit the strawberry shortcake. It's a staple treat that does something unlike any other food. It is neither remarkable, nor would I skip it. It's just really solid. Maybe that's the Midwesterner in me. The rain was starting to kick in again when the other half of our group returned with their food item.
Pecan Maple Syrup Sundae
This was sneakily my favorite ice cream-based item of the day. It was simple, but pecan and maple syrup - two ingredients that make the best version of pecan pie - combined with whipped topping and ice cream ended up being a really solid, obvious choice. Would eat this again every time.
Vanilla Cream Puff (large)
It looks small, but it's packed with a punch of sweet flavor. Imagine a slightly dry biscuit with just enough texture to even out the sweet and airy vanilla-flavored whip. As a novice, I asked about eating utensils and was informed that the correct way to eat the puff was to break off the biscuit and scoop. Brilliant.
Iron Range Pirogies & Blue Cheese-Corn Fritz
The pirogies were decent filler, but they were unremarkable without the accompanying horseradish-based dipping sauce which turned it around. Without the sauce, I would have definitely put these at the bottom of the board. Good save. The blue cheese and corn fritz was good, took me by surprise. It was served with a chimichurri sauce. They came in an order of five, so there was one for each of us. This was an item I would have been happy to eat one or two more of, as it had a good flavor and texture and the balance provided by the savory after a lot of sweet really hit the spot.
Deep Fried Pepperoni
I guess this is an item that was talked about a lot at the fair. Sounded like it was going to be a very bad item to eat. It wasn't. I was actually concerned about how good it tasted, particularly when paired with its dipping sauce, which seemed to be a queso-based dip of some sort. I'd have these again.
Nordic Waffles - Sweet and Savory
A waffle sandwich with berries and cream couple with a waffle sandwich with bacon, egg and cheese. Soft waffle texture. These were fine. I've only had one other waffle sandwich experience, in Huntington Beach, and it was superior to this. The egg was good when combined with everything else that had already been eaten during the trip, but considering the extremely long line, these didn't live up to the hype.
Sweet Martha's Cookies
Yes, the very famous cookies. I was proud of myself for ONLY eating a handful and not diving in and overdoing it. I feel like this is the one universal item that everyone already knows about. No further explanation needed, it's a must every time I visit the fair.
Firecracker Shrimp Stuffed Avocado
Honestly, this item is extremely out of place at a state fair of any kind. It isn't deep friend, has no breading, has the healthy kind of fat instead of the kind that chokes out your heart, and instead of being drenched in sugar, it tastes superb with a squeeze of the lime slice they provide. Could have easily eaten the entire thing by myself. Extremely refreshing, almost like a palate cleansing option midway through the trip.
Corn (on the cob, duh)
The story goes that this corn is grown specifically for this vendor with precise timing in mind to make sure that it is at peak of growth and perfect for roasting and eating right when the fair takes place. Just some fascinating information that we received from our Food Sherpa.
Rainbow Cloud Roll
This thing was spawned by the ice cream devil himself as the ultimate satanic sugar worship. Naturally, those in our group that were non-plussed by the corn were enamored by the Rainbow Cloud Roll. I imagine that this is what Black Phillip had in mind when he was asking Quaker daughters if they like the taste of butter. If you were wondering if you should try this, I would simply ask if you would like to live deliciously.
Why even go to a fair if you're not going to get these. I'm not sure our Food Sherpa had these in the program, but if you remember the simple fair rules to follow, if you want something, get it. I wanted these. I got it.
Minnesota has a great fair, but let me tell you what: The tap water is disgusting. At best, this is to the State Fair food experience as ginger is to your palate when eating sushi.
I feel like this is the perfect time to provide you with a PSA: Stop drinking tap water. You can get reverse osmosis water from your local grocery store for about 40 cents per gallon and it tastes amazing. Also, it has all the garbage - fluoride, sodium, chlorine - removed. Drink more water, drink better water. The three samples they provided were tap water from Duluth, Minneapolis, and Saint Paul. They also provided some useful information. In Minnesota, you can visit the website for the city you live in and they will provide you with the water profile for your city. I'm not sure if this is also true for Wisconsin, but I would hope so.
Our Food Sherpa insisted that the Kiwanis chocolate malt was the best at the fair. After trying it, I have to say it was fantastic. Like a massive Frosty from Wendy's, only better.
Blueberry Rhubarb Cobbler
It's not like what they tell you it's like. I was only middle-of-the-road about this item. Only one person in our group seemed to really enjoy it. We all agreed that it wasn't overly sweet, which was great. However, the blueberry rhubarb component really downplayed the rhubarb and had a consistency more in line with a syrupy pie filling than a cobbler. I also had the Maple Syrup Nitro Coffee at this vendor. The flavor was sweet, but enjoyable. I like basically anything with a maple flavor. I'm skeptical of their "nitro," and I'm not even sure that it truly was a proper nitro. That effect might have been killed off by the maple cream, but nothing about the consistency or the flavor of the drink indicated it was a nitro coffee. You're definitely not getting that from this drink, it's basically a cold brew with sugar cream.
Lamb Chop with Mint Jelly
Exactly as described. Lamb could have been better, but wasn't bad. Mint and lamb is great so this was a nice protein option after the carb and fat overload.
Deep Fried Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
This is my favorite candy, so a deep fried version was a smash hit. It is really heavy and you'll fill up really quickly. Better have something to drink if you plan to finish off more than one of these things in a sitting.
Chicken on a Stick
I was warned to stay away from the fried rice as it doesn't live up to the hype, but the chicken was highly recommended. This chicken thigh skewer was grilled in a teriyaki glaze and retained all the texture and flavor as such. If you're fine with a chicken thigh, this will do the trick in a day that will leave your body craving some protein.
Strawberry Rhubarb Shake
Got this in the dairy barn. It was like a trip to Culvers, but better. Strong finish to an overwhelming day. I wanted to go with the "Flavor of the Fair" option, but after all the other food, I wasn't feeling the S'mores option.
Also had a chance to try buckwheat honey for the first time ever. The biggest struggle of the day was definitely the seed art, if I ever make another trip to the Fair, I'll be skipping that section altogether. The only items missed that might have been nice to try were the turkey leg, za-waffle sticks, zesty PB&J sausage, and honey cream soda float. But hey, looks like we already knocked it out of the park. There's always next year.
by Daniel Coughlin