In Minnesota, summer officially ends on Labor Day. The kids go back to school the following day and there’s usually a crispness in the air (this year was particularly fall-like with temperatures in the 60s). For many, myself included, the closing of season involves a trip to the Minnesota State Fair. This year was another successful year: Officials announced today on its Facebook page a total attendance of 1,776,211 during its 12-day run. That’s about 34 percent of the state’s population. I found the lot of them at the DNR booth staring into the freshwater pond at fish you could find in any of our 10,000-plus lakes. It’s one of the best things about the State Fair: even the simplest, most common things become a curiosity when you set up a booth.
I’ve rarely missed a visit to the State Fair. I used to love the fair for the rides and animals. Growing up in the suburbs, I was rarely in the country and never on a working farm, so a stroll through the barns ranks top priority. I enjoy the culture of the fair, the diversity of the people — the sights and sounds if not the smells, a kind of manure-meets-fried-fare that shocks the nostrils on first whiff. I’ve shied away from the rides after bad memories on the Tilt-A-Whirl post cheese curds consumption, and now find myself most interested in the livestock and life on the farm. I have a huge appreciation for farmers and the hard work they do for us, especially after recently learning more about the agricultural system in this country. (For those who want to learn more, there are several books and documentaries available that will open your eyes. Any of Michael Pollan’s work — I’m currently reading In Defense of Food — or the film Food, Inc. will change how you look at food, and how you eat.) Hats off to the small farmer who serves organic, free range, hormone- and antibiotic-free foods! I never thought twice about it until this year, but I’m happy to support them and really don’t care for anything else, especially when it comes to meat.
But I digress. In my twenties, the State Fair became more about eating as many things on a stick as possible. I didn’t think about where it was coming from or how the teenager in the booth made it — it looked gooey and crispy and therefore delicious. Cheese curds and corndogs were a must, and always corn on the cob.
This year was different. I went in giving myself permission to try some foods, but aimed to find better options. I found fresh-cut fruit at Andre’s Watermelon stand — I went with the chocolate-cover fruit (banana, strawberry and pineapple) for a little decadence. And I inquired about the chocolate: The kid behind the counter told me it was dark chocolate vs. milk chocolate, so I felt a little better hoping some of the flavonoids would translate.
But even after sampling fried pickles and tempura-battered shrimp, I felt dissatisfied. The food just didn’t taste the same to me, and I had no interest in cheese curds whatsoever. I also noticed signage at several booths promoting “healthy” options, usually ironically. Fried fruit. Fried veggies. One stand even had a sign that promoted “glutin free” items, which was great to see the option, but also made the copy editor in me wonder why they would choose the little-used variation on the spelling of gluten.
As a group, my girlfriends and I came to the conclusion that the deep-fried risotto poppers on a stick (of course) at French Meadow Bakery were the best thing we tried that night (those familiar with the stand, now in its 15th year at the fair, will wonder why we didn’t go for the famous scones — we asked and they were out). I’m a fan of French Meadow’s bread and its cafe on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, but I think it was their signage that pulled me in:
I thought they might be joking with the claim of “naturally fried goods,” but Deborah Gordon-Gleize, who oversees French Meadow’s State Fair operation for her mother’s store, made their mission clear in a recent statement:
our unique State Fair menu with the same creativity and commitment to
fresh, all-natural and organic as we do in our Lyndale Avenue Cafe farm-to-table menu. It’s an excellent venue to bring innovative
gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and all-natural food to people that may
not have these offerings readily available to them.”
In the sea of people, seeing their booth was an oasis to this health-conscious eater. And I don’t think it would’ve been as exciting to me in years past — even though I did seek good-tasting food, if not always good-for-me food, my now almost hyper-consciousness to finding real food has helped me make better choices. Even if that fare comes on a stick.