Festival foods have a special place in food culture — as long as we enjoy them only once a year.
This is a story about cheese curds.
When I first moved to Minnesota for college many years ago, my new friends told me about the Minnesota State Fair. An annual tradition cherished by locals for generations, this particular festival is considered one of the biggest and best in the nation. I had recently arrived from New York City, with no experience in such agrarian celebrations, and I imagined something straight out of a Renaissance painting: people arriving from the countryside, on hay wagons, most likely, peddling hogs and bundles of grain, all while singing “Scarborough Fair.”
Needless to say, I was unprepared for the hordes of decidedly contemporary people, as many as 260,000 a day, descending upon the fairgrounds near St. Paul for more than a week straight. Yes, there were hogs — and cattle, horses, and chickens — as well as traditional crafts, impressively large pumpkins, and something called “crop art.” Yes, there were Ferris wheels and other carnival attractions. But for many people, I learned, the big draw was the food.
Even if you’ve never been to your own state’s fair, you can imagine the kind of cuisine I’m talking about. Picture the concession food at your local baseball stadium or amusement park (including candy bars and pizza), and then imagine dunking it all in a vat of hot oil.
I have gone on in life to become a Twin Cities food critic, and part of my job over the past 20 years has entailed tasting every single newly offered Minnesota State Fair food. I have gagged on deep-fried Twinkies on national television (my mistake: inhaling a snowdrift of powdered sugar) and eaten slivers of deep-fried camel testicle before a live radio audience. I have reviewed chocolate-covered jalapeños and chocolate-covered watermelon. I have critiqued deep-fried Spam bites and candied-bacon doughnut sliders.
I’ve endured such assaults to my palate and health by getting through these tastings as quickly as possible and filing my copy before the headache and nausea set in. I always take the following day off to recover, and I remind myself that the reason I feel catastrophically depressed is, alas, the fair food.
The Curse of Cheese Curds
Before I became so jaded, I was a naive college student eager to sample a delicacy known in these parts as fried cheese curds. Back then, these were a truly special treat — a quintessential, once-a-year extravagance that was part of the State Fair pilgrimage.
Cheese curds are solid pieces of curdled milk. They’re made by adding a bacterial culture and rennet (a complex of enzymes typically produced in the stomachs of ruminants) to fresh pasteurized milk, which causes the milk to clot. These clumps are pressed to drain the watery whey, and the result represents a sort of halfway point between milk and hard cheese.
When they’re fresh, cheese curds are squeaky, a bit rubbery, and pretty darned tasty. Bread them and plunge them into hot oil, and you’ve got a State Fair classic.
“You will never believe these cheese curds!” my friends promised. We ordered a “basket” (actually a greasy folded-cardboard tray) containing eight or 10 crispy golden nuggets. I took one and placed it in my mouth — the salt and oil and gooey-yet-resilient cheesiness melting on my tongue. Amazing! Six of us shared this basket (and later one more) because you really need only a few fried cheese curds. Newly initiated into the cult of the curd, I went back to regular life, expecting to encounter this favorite but once a year.
How times have changed.
Sometime in the past couple of decades, fried cheese curds went from being an annual carnival-food indulgence to a standing appetizer on roughly half of all burger-joint menus in the Upper Midwest. Their rise to ubiquity happened so gradually that I didn’t really notice at first, but now they’re definitely everyday food.
Lest we forget, this happened to sugar (albeit on a much larger scale). Sugar was once so rare it was called “the sweet salt” and kept in sugar safes that many folks unlocked only for weddings, Christmas, and other special occasions.
In the 18th century (owing in large part to the atrocity of slave labor on sugar plantations in the New World), sugar became more affordable — and omnipresent. The typical colonial-era American consumed 6 pounds of sugar a year; the average 21st-century American puts away about 130 pounds of “caloric sweeteners” annually. And this is an improvement: In 1999, we were eating about 150 pounds a year!
The fried cheese curds of my youth are just another example of a special food that has been loved too well.
When Special Is No Longer Special
We all know that batter-fried cheese is not a health food. Deep-fried curds and other such fare never did our cardiovascular systems any favors, but when they made only a once-yearly appearance, they weren’t much to worry about. Now, what essentially counts as festival foods — French fries, mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets, pizza, corn dogs — are part and parcel of the standard American diet.
On top of all this, modern-day fried cheese curds aren’t even as delicious as they used to be. The best curds are fresh, but they dry out quickly, becoming flabby and flat. This is why restaurants, which necessarily deal with food deliveries and storage, always serve somewhat dull versions. Some restaurants don’t even use actual cheese curds; they peddle premade, uniformly sized cheese pellets.
So yes, I pine for the fried cheese curds of old, and I still seek them out sometimes at the State Fair. And even though I almost always wind up feeling a bit sick, I really do love that first day at the fair. I never feel more Minnesotan than when I’m shoulder to shoulder with the people of my adopted homeland, enjoying absurd food and drink concoctions.
I try to keep such dietary indiscretions as fried cheese curds, chocolate-covered bacon, and deep-fried Spam relatively rare — not just because it’s healthier that way, but because that’s exactly what makes them so special.