ELLSWORTH, WIS. - The journey of the 112,000 pounds of deep-fried cheese curds that will be consumed at the Minnesota State Fair begins with a single cow.

When the fair opens in Falcon Heights on Thursday morning, a good share of the nearly 2 million people expected to pass through the gates during the ensuing 12 days will beat a path seeking that little cardboard basket of the gooey, deep-fried delicacy.

The fair is a place of marvels and tradition, the curds being but one. And Ellsworth, Wis., is the nation's curd epicenter.

"It's all about the curds," said Beth Ingli, who farms with her husband, Craig, about 8 miles from Ellsworth.

Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, which provides all of the State Fair's curds, produces 150,000 pounds daily, using milk from farms within a 100-mile radius from Ellsworth, from west of the Twin Cities to east of Eau Claire, Wis.

The 50 or 60 tons that will be consumed at the fair are barely a blip.

It starts on farms like the Inglis,' who milk 50 Holstein cows daily -- at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. They are among the 460 farmer-owners of the creamery, which makes only curds and its Little-Miss-Muffett byproduct, whey.

Aside from Minnesota, the curds find their way to state fairs in Wisconsin, Iowa and even Alaska, said Ingli, who is also the creamery's store supervisor and advertising director.

Curds are sold at supermarkets (flavor options include garlic and Cajun), on the Internet and at the creamery store in Ellsworth, where residents eagerly line up as they come out squeaky-fresh. The curds also are sold to other companies and sold under their brand names, she said.

"They're all over," she said.

It's likely the only creamery in the nation that exclusively makes curds, said Joe Hines, the plant superintendent, who has been working there for more than 45 years.

Companies also buy the curds in 500-pound barrels and transform them into an array of processed cheese products, Hines said. The whey, a thin liquid, is dried and sold mostly to food processors, some of them overseas. Nearly every candy bar, for example, contains whey.

The curds are a point of community pride as well. The village of 3,300 is the undisputed "Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin" -- which is saying something in America's Dairyland. In June, they celebrate "Cheese Curd Days."

Transformation begins

The complex process of transforming milk to curd blends elements of traditional cheesemaking with modern science and high-efficiency technology.

"It's still the basic thing that I did 45 years ago when we started making cheese here," Hines said. "One thing that's a lot better is that everything is totally enclosed, where years back, everything was kind of open to the atmosphere."

The creamery has five cheesemakers, who have to serve a two-year apprenticeship before going through a state certification process.

Sanitation is constantly monitored, and the creamery is regularly inspected by state and federal agencies, along with cheese buyers, Hines said. Milk and its final products are constantly tested.

When the milk arrives by truck, it can be stored in one of five stainless steel silos that each hold up to 500,000 pounds of milk (dairy processors weigh fluid milk in pounds; there's about 8 1/2 pounds to a gallon). The creamery takes in about 1.7 million pounds of milk daily.

After being filtered to remove some of the water in the milk, Hines explained, the first stop is the pasteurizer, which resembles a huge car radiator and kills any bacteria. The milk is heated to 163 degrees for 17 seconds, then cooled to about 88 degrees.

The real action takes place in five huge steel vats, which hold 55,000 pounds of milk. As with other cheesemaking processes, a small amount of bacteria culture is added. Different strains of bacteria create different types of cheese.

The white cheddar curds are all natural, Ingli said. "People always say, why isn't your cheese yellow, and I say, 'Well, is your milk yellow?'"

Rennet, an enzyme that causes milk to curdle, is added and the mixture starts separating into curds and whey. Eventually, Hines said, the curd becomes one vast sheet about 5 inches thick and weighing 7,000 pounds.

The curds are then cut down to size -- with whey removed at almost every step -- salted evenly and packed into 40-pound boxes or 500-pound barrels, which can later be shipped or further packaged into units as small as 5 ounces.

Making the last stop

Some of those 40-pound boxes -- perhaps 100 or more a day -- will make their way to the Mouth Trap deep-fried cheese curd stand at the Food Building of the State Fair, one of at least three such stands at the fair.

Dave Cavallaro, a veteran of nearly three decades as a food concessionaire, has been running the stand for the past 10 years, following a major revamping of the Food Building. That experience has created a clock-smooth operation.

Each night, he sends a truck to Ellsworth to pick up a load of cheese curds, which are stowed in a cooler just after the fair closes daily. "You can't get on the fairgrounds until after 11 o'clock," he said. "So it gets here at about 11:02."

About 100 young people work at the stand -- half from Sibley High School in West St. Paul and half from North High in North St. Paul. Many are cheese curd veterans and are members of either North's national Honor Society or Sibley's Key Club. Aside from their pay, the organizations get $1 for every hour they work.

Making curds is a fast and furious process, he said. Curds are dumped into a steel container and breaded with a standard dry mix, then fried with vegetable oil (non-transfat) in one of 12 fryers. "All the fryers are drained and thoroughly cleaned each night, which I think is key to the taste," Cavallaro said.

Sales are meticulously recorded using a ticket-and-counter system for accuracy. "There's a method to our madness, I guess," he said.

As he made final preparations for what will be a hungry onslaught, there was only one thing left to worry about.

"The only thing that affects us is the weather, the heat or the rain," Cavallaro said. "Seventy- or 80-degree weather is prime fair food-eating weather."

Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999