Tuesday, August 26, 2014

State Fair Diaries: make new friends and keep the old

One of the best things about going to the Minnesota State Fair often is that I don't feel obligated to gorge myself on food. Instead I pick my way through new foods and old favorites and experience the Fair in a slower more deliberate manner.

Last night was our 9th year of State Fair Trivia/Bingo which meant meeting up with friends and eating/drinking our way from Heritage Square er... I mean the West End Market to the Education Building (for our annual group photo calendar). And of course we hit every beer garden in between.

I finally tried the Chicken in a Waffle at the Blue Barn. The cone is a slightly sweet version of a traditional waffle ice cream cone. Tucked inside are robust crunchy chicken bites somehow not soggy in spite of the creamy peppery gravy generously ladled over the whole concoction. The experience begins as a savory meal, intermittent with bites of sweet crisp cone, and ends an oddly wonderful candy note of chocolate covered malt ball sort of oozing with hints of pepper gravy.

A generous group near us offered a taste of their Blue Cheese & Corn Fritz with Chimichurri, also purchased from the new Blue Barn. I am not a Gorgonzola fan but those little fritters are a perfect balance of gamy and sweet, crunchy and smooth, while the chimichurri adds a nice herbal note.

Our group wandered up to O'Gara's where we shared the Pretzel Curds. I'd already attempted twice to procure a basket of the pretzel coated cheese curds and upon finally tasting them decided that they are pretty good, although more like mozzarella sticks than traditional fried curds, and thus had us craving a smooth marinara sauce for dipping rather than the chipotle ranch that is served.

Another new item we tried was the Grain Belt Blu; a not offensive blueberry flavored beer topped with a refreshing and thankfully not cloying blueberry slush. After that we headed for a few old favorites; fried pickles, shandy beer, and pumpkin pie with cinnamon ice cream from the Minneapple stand.

Pleasantly bloated and done for the evening, I bid goodbye and took the shuttle home. I was happy to see my old buddy Elvis, the gentle dog that hangs out near the parking lot where State Fair goers catch buses and hours later stagger off of them. Elvis, like the rest of us, is slightly older but none the worse for wear. Like us, he seems as happy to be a part of the Fair.



Monday, August 25, 2014

State Fair Diaries: State Fair peeps

When I first met T he wasn't exactly a State Fair Peep. He'd do his best pretending to drum up enthusiasm when I'd get into State Fair Mode, hobbling alongside me for an hour or two only to ask to rest. He wasn't into the food except for a few bites of fried pickles and a basket of walleye. He didn't know Machinery Hill from the Hippodrome. 

A few years into our relationship I gently suggested that perhaps T should spend the 12 days of our Great State Get Together at home.

That was all it took. Suddenly my former State Fair straggler became an olympian. Now, he cruises the Fairgrounds like a weight lifter on steroids. He eats two, sometimes three baskets of cheese curds in a single day. He can intelligently argue the merits of pronto pups versus corn dogs. He has also become a horse show geek, and insists on watching a few hours of barrel racing or dressage with every visit.

I take full credit for T's metamorphosis. I have created a State Fair Peep. The world could use a few more of us.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

State Fair Diaries: Day 1

The Fair began this year, as it usually does, with friends and breakfast at Salem. Rain and the promise of humid heat kept the crowds away. We spent the morning volunteering at Renewing the Countryside and the afternoon wandering the Fairgrounds searching for old favorites and new possibilities.

Here are my thoughts on the old and new alike:
1. Is there a better place to take in the Fair than at a table or bench shared with strangers (a.k.a. new friends) at one of the old church diners? At both Salem and Hamline we are welcomed like family, greeted with smiles and hot coffee, and served the kind of food I imagine my grandparents enjoyed at the Fair decades ago. The Fair is about tradition, and none is stronger than here. (Try Izzy's Jello Salad Ice Cream at Hamline. We did and it is great. Next year, how about a lime version?)

2. Last year fried pickles on a stick debuted at Fried Fruit on a Stick. We loved them but really wished for a hot sauce to balance the tart olives, creamy cheese centers, and crispy breading. This year the folks at Fried Fruit on a Stick obliged our desires and are now serving hot sauce on the side. We also noticed a strong herb presence in the breading, which we agreed was delicious. Oregano? Rosemary? We asked a worker who told us there were indeed herbs in the batter last year, but our batch this year apparently contained more. We approved.

3. There has been much hoopla about the new West End Market (formerly Heritage Square). My beef with Heritage Square was that the ground was hard and hot, there was no shade, no air circulation, and little to no green in the space. West End is a polished modern version of Heritage Square: concrete, no shade, no breeze, and no green. Hey State Fair, please plant a tree or two. And did you have to price out mom and pop's like Ole's Cannoli?

Thankfully we have the baby pigs and a big fat pig with a slightly naughty name. We happily seek out 4Hers who are showing their cows, and jokingly curse that darn cute Marjorie Johnson who beat me again in the baking contests and added God knows how many more blue ribbons to her collection. We snack on mushroom and Swiss crepes and talk to the vendor about wine slushies, and reminisce about those years ago when the Creperie was a tiny cart run by swarthy guys with thick French accents. Somewhere a marching band is playing a fanfare. We marvel at the seed art and giggle at whatever new flavor of lip balm the StarTribune is distributing this year (fresh cut grass). With icy Tejas Beergaritas we toast to another great Minnesota State Fair with her traditions old and new.