ST. PAUL, Minn. - Opening day at the Minnesota State Fair was a rainy, poncho-wearing experience that alternated mist and downpours. But that didn't dampen my taste buds, or those of my fellow food editors and writers in the Association of Food Journalists.
As part of the organization's annual meeting, a visit to the lively 12-day fair was a good way to learn about the foods of Minnesota.
We savored the experience. I learned about cheese curds, lefse, and more food-on-a-stick than I ever imagined. I went behind the scenes of the Dairy Goodness Bar and the Princess Kay butter sculptures.
There were at least four vendors selling cheese curds, including the Mouth Trap at the Food Building, where I tasted the hot little morsels of crisply fried balls of mozzarella cheese. This year they are fried in trans fat-free oil, according to one vendor, although trans fat-free oil doesn't make them any lower in calories or fat. Best eaten when they're hot and crispy (and probably only once a year), they melt in your mouth, likely due to the fat.
Not far away, I found the Countryside booth making lefse, a bread cooked on a dry griddle. The Norwegian flatbread that has mashed potatoes as its main ingredient was sold in several versions, including rolled plain, rolled with cinnamon and sugar, and rolled with lingonberry jam and topped with whipped cream, sprinkled with almonds, and finished with a little Norwegian flag. The lingonberry is a tart red berry that is related to the cranberry, and very popular in Scandinavia. The lingonberry lefse was among my favorite foods at the fair.
Another way the lefse is used is in the Uffda Brat, which is a new item at the fair this year. Scandinavian sausage is wrapped in the potato lefse. It is based on the treat kids have when they come home from school was one explanation we heard.
The Food Building had its share of stromboli, freshly baked cinnamon rolls, wild rice corn dogs, and assorted seafoods like walleye and fresh smelt. Walleye-on-a-stick was grilled.
I counted more than 56 foods on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair, from alligator sausage-on-a-stick and Key Lime Pie dipped in Chocolate to pork chops-on-a-stick and Scotch-eggs-on- a-stick. In addition, there are hundreds of foods to buy and taste, from andouille sausage to burritos, calamari, gelato, German sausage, mostaccioli, and Philly cheese steak. No wonder the fair is open for 12 days.
Since 1953, the Princess Kay competition has recognized young women whose families are involved in Minnesota's dairy industry. Twelve princesses are selected to represent the dairy industry throughout the year. Each member of the court has a likeness of her face carved out of butter during the fair.
In Empire Commons adjacent to the Midwest Dairy Association's Dairy Goodness Bar, the princess designated for that day sits in a refrigerated booth (38 degrees) while the sculpture is made from 85 to 90 pounds of butter. It takes all day. At the end of the fair, each princess can take the butter sculpture home, according to Donna Moenning of the Dairy Association.
Ms. Moenning was a Princess in 1980 and still has her butter likeness in the freezer. "My kids ask me to pull it out of the freezer," she said. "Some girls will have a corn cob feast as an appreciation to the community" (for supporting her during the competition). Some girls use the butter likeness at their weddings, or they make butter cookies at Christmas and give packages of them to friends and family.
I guess you could say that the Dairy Goodness Bar offers an alternative to the deep-fried fair fare. There's ice cream, low-fat cheese sticks of cheddar, mozzarella or cojack, and three flavors of yogurt.
At the all-you-can drink milk stand, an elaborate, high-tech system of 200 feet of stainless steel pipes carries the milk from the 300-gallon totes to the cup; it also does a complete cleaning at the close of each day at the fair. Milk is never touched by human hands, from the time it enters the fairgrounds until the consumer receives it.
Interestingly, they sell more white milk than chocolate. "Maybe it's because you can get filled up faster on chocolate milk," said Sherry Newell of the Midwest Dairy Association. "But milk lovers really like white milk."