The Minnesota State Fair is a deep-fried, butter-sculpted celebration of everything you loved as a kid.
So when fair organizers spent $15 million and the better part of the year on a fairgrounds overhaul, they knew they were tampering with a beloved tradition.
“There are certain things we have to do every year,” said Tricia Miller, a schoolteacher from Blaine who has been going to the fair every year since she was 5.
Her family fair tradition used to include buying a Christmas ornament at Heritage Square. But Heritage Square is gone, razed to make way for the biggest expansion to the fairgrounds since the 1930s. The new West End Market will greet visitors as they walk from the new transit hub, through the new gates, past the new blue barn and into a sweeping plaza filled with amenities like a rooftop patio, air-conditioned history center and new fair foods like deep-fried lobster on a stick.
“Maybe it’s time to start a new tradition?” said Anna Essendrup, who has visited the fair 22 of the 25 years of her life and says she’s excited to check out the West End and some of this year’s new foods — like beer gelato.
Fair organizers hope others agree.
“There are two things people hate: change and the way things are,” fair spokeswoman Brienna Schuette said with a laugh. “This is where the new fair meets the nostalgic fair.”
Comfort food and cookies
If you like things they way they are, keep walking through the West End Market until you hit the butter sculptures, the all-you-can-drink milk booth and the livestock barns. Because at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, the more some things change, the more others stay the same.
“We’ll be here!” said Martha Rossini Olson, who has been filling buckets with her Sweet Martha’s Cookies for the past 36 years. She has 400 workers trained and ready to churn out the 1 million cookies a day that fairgoers expect.
The Minnesota State Fair offers 450 different kinds of food — more than 60 of them on sticks — from more than 300 vendors. One of the newest is Stephanie Shimp, owner of the Blue Plate restaurant company, which will be cooking up comfort food offerings like Iron Range pierogies and chicken and waffles in the bright blue barn that now sits at the entrance to the West End Market, at the foot of the Skyway.
“You’ve made it when you’ve made it to the State Fair,” said Shimp, whose company had been on the waiting list to get into the fair for eight or nine years. “It’s the equivalent of a violinist playing onstage at Carnegie Hall.”
More seasoned vendors have offered their State Fair survival tips: Never, ever run out of anything. Make sure you have a backup plan, and a backup plan for your backup plan. For vendors, she said, it’s like compressing a month’s worth of businesses into each day at the fair.
Dick Mueller has been serving up fried cheese curds at the State Fair for the past 40 years. He’s already given this year’s pep talk to the workers at the Original Deep Fried Cheese Curds stand, serving up gooey half-pound baskets of fried delights.
“I tell any kid that works there, ‘You’re going to work very hard. You’re going to work as hard as you ever will in your life, and you’re going to sweat,’” said Mueller, who’s seen it all in four decades at the fair — from the day the heat index hit 106 degrees at last year’s fair, all but destroying everyone’s desire to eat fried anything, to the year the crowds mobbed his booth past midnight because Garrison Keillor featured fried cheese curds on his show.
“Garrison Keillor is a good friend of the State Fair and a good friend of the cheese curds,” Mueller noted.
While work crews were putting the finishing touches on the West End Market, judges were squinting into bins of soybeans and corn in the Agriculture Building, preparing to award ribbons. They rolled the soybeans around in the bins, looking for uniform size, intact hulls and the other markers that separate a good soybean from a truly great soybean. On the walls around them, ears of corn and other produce stood, already racked and ribboned.
And after all that, “people come in and say, ‘They all look alike,’ ” said Ron Kelsey, superintendent of farm crops, shaking his head. Not only is Kelsey overseeing the judging, but he’ll be hosting an exhibit of his own — hundreds of seed sacks he’s collected. The cloth bags are a remnant of an age where absolutely nothing went to waste. When the seeds were gone, the bags were turned into something else, from dish towels to clothes to children’s dolls.
That blend of nostalgic and new continues in exhibits throughout the fair this year.
The lumberjack logrolling contest will be sharing its pool with the fair’s new diving dog competition. University of Minnesota researchers have taken over the old Spamville exhibit to invite the crowds to volunteer as human test subjects for a broad range of research projects — from social science projects to nutrition studies.
Even 4-H is coming up with new ways to exhibit at the State Fair this year.
In a home in St. Paul, a group of 9- and 8-year-olds crouched around a contraption that had completely taken over the family’s dining room. It was the winning entry in the Ramsey County Fair’s 4-H Engineering Design Challenge competition — a fantastically noisy, twisty Rube Goldberg machine, designed to carry out a straightforward task in the most complex possible way.
The team from Chelsea Heights Elementary, who call themselves the Awesome Mustaches, created a 17-stage, multitiered device of ramps and wind chimes, marbles, water, a toy truck, a pulley, a hockey stick and a precarious pyramid of cups — all to zip the zipper on a mannequin the kids named “Bob.”
“It’s something really complicated and hard to make, to do something really simple,” explained Ben Vessel, who built the machine with his Chelsea Heights Elementary classmates Winter Russo, Olivia Miller and Mahlate Belete, with the assistance of 7-year-old Merrik Russo.
After several test runs, Bob was zipped securely into his jacket and the team was ready for the best part of a 4-H competition.
“We get to go to the State Fair!” said Winter Russo.