State fairs have long been famous for carnival cuisines that feature deep-fried Twinkies, meat on a stick, cheese curds, turkey legs and funnel cakes. That cuisine is evolving. Many officials have discovered that distinctive local fair food with a gourmet touch provides an effective and lucrative way to showcase and market their respective states.
Fair fare now includes organic, gluten-free and farm-to-table items which could easily compete with the precious menus from gastro-pubs, urbane eateries and fancy food trucks which draw elite patrons seeking a unique experience.
The Iowa State Fair offers crispy duck bacon wontons with fire-roasted sweet corn and green onions. The Minnesota State fair features a delicate smoked ice cream topped with chocolate expresso dust and bourbon-soaked cherries — and a grilled fresh peach topped with fresh goat cheese, herbs and honey. The Wisconsin State Fair this year introduced a grilled burger topped with bacon jam and brie.
Things have taken such a gourmet turn out west that the California State Fair has opened a 24-seat Taste of California Education Center to provide “an extended sensory evaluation and educational experience” of their midway menu featuring experts in wine, beer, cheese, extra virgin olive oil, produce and honey, among other things.
“California leads the nation in production of prestige agricultural products that go beyond staple commodities like wheat and soy, providing lifestyle enhancement and a connection to the land,” said Clark Smith, a California winemaker who will coach fairgoers in the fine art of pairing wine with music. Consumer education provides a critical link in supporting the chain of consumption for this bounty,” Mr. Smith said.
He’s not kidding about the bounty.
Food is a million-dollar resource at some fairs. Food vendors provided $47 million in revenue for the Minnesota State Fair in 2017 according to the Minneapolis StarTribune, which points out that Sweet Martha’s — a favorite cookie vendor at the event — sold $4 million worth of cookies in 12 days last year. That works out to 2,000 cookies every 12 minutes according to Martha Rossini Olson, founder and co-owner of the business.
Meanwhile, the Texas State Fair named a dozen of the best “blue ribbon” wines of Texas to showcase when the big event gets underway next month. The wines have evocative names, ranging from Farmhouse Vineyards West Texas Boyfriend — a sparkling white wine — to Brennan Vineyards Buffalo Roam, a dry red wine.
“I raise my glass and toast the winners,” said Sid Miller, Texas Agriculture Commissioner who advises fairgoers to support their local winemakers at the fair and through retailers.
Those whose fair experience is not complete without deep-fried or over-the-top cuisine should not worry about this trend, though. All the good stuff which is bad for you is still a fixture at fairs, so much so that major food magazines rate the best of the worst each year.
A very, very small sampling of the fare (and the fairs): Cookie dough spaghetti and Brown sugar pork belly on a stick (Iowa State Fair), deep-fried jelly beans and deep-fried martinis (Massachusetts State Fair), Kool-Aid pickles and deep-fried banana split (New York State Fair), chocolate-covered horse chestnuts on a stick and deep-fried cream cheese coated mealworms (Ohio State Fair) and finally, funnel cake ice cream and deep-fried shepherd’s pie (Texas State Fair.)
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