Minnesota State Fair 2014: Local fair food

RICK NELSON | | Updated 8/20/2014

The State Fair is loaded with Minnesota-produced food and drink.

Corn from the roasted corn stand
Bruce Bisping

Minnesota isn’t the nation’s leading milk producer (We’re No. 6!) but the state acts like it, at least at the Midwest Dairy Association’s two hugely popular fair outlets, which spotlight Minnesota-raised milk. Its iconic All You Can Drink Milk stand (Judson Av. and Clough St.) is celebrating its 60th year, and it continues to be staffed by farm families, who pour unlimited 12-ounce cups of 2 percent white and 1 percent chocolate, all from Minnesota dairy farms. (Take note: Last call is at 9 p.m.) Last year, sales hit 26,257 gallons, with 2 percent holding a slight lead over chocolate. Another fun fact: The average milk enthusiast consumes two to three servings. The price remains $1; it was a dime when the stand opened in 1955. Join Gov. Mark Dayton on Saturday at 11 a.m. at the stand, when he declares Aug. 23 “All-You-Can-Drink Milk Stand Day.”

Meanwhile, the association’s Dairy Goodness Bar in the Dairy Building (Judson Av. and Underwood St.) is another perennial get-in-line destination, where fairgoers queue up for malts ($6) and sundaes ($5), made using a formulated-for-the-fair ice cream and served in a half-dozen flavors. Chocolate is the top seller, but strawberry comes in second place; last year, the bar went through nearly three tons of berries, all from Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake.

Pork, turkey and lamb

At the Lamb Shoppe (Food Building), Connie Karstens and Doug Rathke showcase the output of their Hutchinson, Minn., acreage with grilled lamb served a number of ways, including, naturally, on a stick.

The state’s 450 family-owned turkey farms — under the auspices of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association — have been feeding fairgoers since 1956, first at the organization’s “Turkey Teria” and now at Turkey to Go (Clough St. and Judson Av.), which funnels Minnesota-raised birds into stacked-to-the-sky sandwiches and roasted drumsticks.

Cherie Peterson and Merry Barry, the siblings at Sausage Sister & Me (Food Building), turn their recipes — including Tex-Mex and porketta versions — over to Lorenz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minn., with spectacular results.

Fans of the sausage-makers at Kramarczuk’s should take refuge at the Blue Moon Dine-In Theatre, which imports bratwurst and andouille sausages from the pride of northeast Minneapolis.

Direct from the orchard

The Jacobsons’ ties to the fair go back more than a half-century. The family’s Minnesota Apples stand (Agriculture Horticulture) is the place for a true taste of their Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake, via just-picked apples (Paula Reds, Beacons and Whitney crabs are on this year’s docket), a palate-cleansing applesauce, refreshing cider and the ultimate in portable air conditioning, the crowd-pleasing Cider Freeze, a plastic tube filled with cider that’s taken to icy awesomeness. New this year: the orchard’s Apple Rollovers, tender puff pastry filled with cinnamon-dusted Haralsons and topped with a cider glaze. “It’s one of those to-die-for desserts,” said Barb Jacobson. “It’s going to be huge. We’re willing to stay up 24 hours a day to keep ahead of the demand.”

Tapping success

The flood of local small-batch beers during the past few years is one of the fair’s most welcome trends, starting with the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s fascinating “Land of 10,000 Brews” exhibition (Agriculture Horticulture), which includes pours from 30-plus breweries.

But plenty of vendors are recognizing the value of Minnesota-brewed beers. In the spirit of the 2013 talker — mini-doughnut beer (sold at the Ball Park Cafe, outside the Food Building) — Giggles’ Campfire Grill (Cooper St. and Lee Av.) dives mug-first into novelty territory with a s’mores beer, a chocolate-infused porter from St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing Co., served in a chocolate- and graham cracker-rimmed glass. A marshmallow is optional.

The venerable Grain Belt (produced by another Gopher State brewing legend, the August Schell Brewing Co. in New Ulm, Minn.) is embracing fair zaniness with Grain Belt Blu, a summery blend of the iconic Grain Belt Premium and blueberries. Find it at the new Lulu’s Public House (West End Market).   

Raising a glass

Nothing thumbs its nose at Minnesota’s harsh winters with quite as much panache as the state’s ever-growing wine industry. Which is why it’s such a treat to experience Wine Country Minnesota (Underwood St. between Carnes Av. and Judson Av.), where fairgoers can sample a dozen reds, whites and dessert wines — by the glass, or in flights — from eight determined Gopher State wineries and vineyards. There’s plenty of wine talk, too, with daily (and free) educational programs, and a host of wine-friendly foods, all in the accommodating former home of the Epiphany Diner. “It’s not like selling Tom Thumb doughnuts or Sweet Martha’s cookies,” said Saint Croix Vineyards owner Paul Quast. “But it sure is a great way to get the word out about Minnesota wine.”

Minne-soda

Two sodas merit the don’t-miss treatment. First is that little piece of New Ulm, Minn., otherwise known as the 1919 Draft Root Beer stand (Dan Patch Av. and Underwood St.), a purveyor of all things rich, ice cold, creamy and lightly frothy. And yes, ordering a float is an excellent idea. Then there’s the tiny Spring Grove Soda Pop booth (Nelson St. between Judson Av. and Carnes Av.), where fairgoers can indulge in yesteryear flavors along the lines of black cherry, rhubarb-strawberry, orange-vanilla and lemon sour. Befitting the 119-year-old company, located in the state’s far southeastern corner, the sodas are made the old-fashioned way, using cane sugar, not corn syrup.

Keeping it official

The official state fish gets its due at Walleye on a Stick (Food Building), although co-owner Bill Davis admits that his wild-caught sources all hold Canadian passports. The freshwater wonder is dusted with flour and seasoning — think dry rub rather than a ponderous batter — and deep-fried, yielding a delicate crispiness that doesn’t overwhelm the pristine, melt-in-your-mouth fish. This year, Davis is introducing a first: foot-long walleye on a stick. “It’s going to be a skewering nightmare,” he said with a laugh. 

Another option: the superb walleye cakes at Giggles’ Campfire Grill (Cooper St. and Lee Av.), which radiate a level of care and feeding that’s rare for the fair. The Canadian-sourced fish is fortified with salmon, wild rice and red pepper and seasoned with a laundry list of spices and herbs. Each patty is formed by hand, coated in panko, pan-fried to golden perfection and paired with a honey-mustard sauce.

Wild rice, Minnesota’s official state grain, can be found all over the fairgrounds. Two favorites include the delicate pancakes at the Robbinsdale OES Dining Hall (Underwood St. between Dan Patch Av. and Carnes Av.) that use a wild rice flour and are garnished with cooked wild rice, and the nutty-flavored wild rice burgers at Wild Rice Specialties (Food Building).

Making a buzz

Honey connoisseurs make a beeline for the nonprofit Minnesota Honey Producers Association outposts in the Agriculture Horticulture building. Some go for jars of the gorgeous output from 19 Minnesota beekeepers, who range in age from 10 to 93. Others prefer the impressive honey candy collection (including Minnesota-made honey sticks) and the refreshing honey-laced lemonade. While the honey that sweetens the two terrific ice creams (chocolate with honey roasted almonds, vanilla with sunflower seeds and honey, both made exclusively for the fair by Kemps) isn’t locally sourced, that’s not the case with the sundaes, which are topped with “all the honey — donated by a local beekeeper — that will fit in the bowl,” said the association’s Linda Newman.

Spuds-tacular

Minnesota-grown potatoes are the backbone of Fresh French Fries (Judson Av. between Underwood St. and Nelson St., and Liggett St. between Carnes Av. and Dan Patch Av.). Lots of potatoes. Last year, owner Dan Wozniak and his crew peeled, sliced and fried (in a trans fat-free vegetable oil) more than 115 tons of spuds freshly harvested from the Hayes family’s Big Lake, Minn., farm.

Pride of summer

Corn Roast (Dan Patch Av. and Nelson St.) owner Brad Ribar shrewdly capitalizes on the fair’s late-August/early-September schedule, which coincides with local sweet corn season. Golden, juicy, slightly smoky and hot off the grill, roasted sweet corn may be the perfect fair food: It’s fresh, flavorful, portable and even healthful (well, if the whole dunking-in-melted-butter routine is skipped). As always, Ribar is sourcing from a Monticello, Minn., farm, which keeps plenty busy harvesting every day for the fair’s 12-day run; last year’s cob count broke the 180,000 barrier. One way Ribar is marking his 30th year at the fair is by holding the price to $3, the same as it has been for the past nine years. He’s also issuing T-shirts to his staff that appear exactly as they did the stand’s first year, for the two Thursdays of the fair’s run. “For Throwback Thursday,” Ribar said with a laugh.

Partners in celebration

Kemps is celebrating its 100th birthday by teaming with 105-year-old Pearson’s Candy Co., and fair­goers are getting a preview of the party. The St. Paul institutions are releasing sneak previews of Nut Goodie and Salted Nut Roll ice creams, with free samples available from 1 to 2 p.m. daily at the Kemps booth on Machinery Hill.