Yes, it's possible to eat healthy amid the dietary calamity that is the Minnesota State Fair. Although "healthy" is a relative term, particularly while grazing through the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
For some -- including me -- it means avoiding fried foods at all costs. Others prefer dropping the soda, beer and sugar-soaked lemonades in favor of water. Then there are those who map out a strategy to avoid fat and cholesterol, but turn a blind eye to sugar and salt.
Whatever the mindset, here are a few ideas for making the state fair less of a gut bomb.Or is that guilt trip?
Here’s nature’s (and Frigidaire’s) way to cool down: Frozen fruit. Veggie Pie (Food Building) goes totally state fair on the idea, spearing either red grapes or pineapple chunks on a stick ($2). The former is a cool burst of berry sweetness, and the latter puts a melts-quickly spin on pineapple’s tart bite. Bayou Bob’s (Nelson St. at Dan Patch Av., pictured, above) also gets into the act, serving up a boat of frozen red grapes for $3.
Inside the Agriculture Horticulture Building is a treasure trove of health-conscious eating, in the form of Minnesota Apples. The stand sells its own version of portable air conditioning – frozen cider in a plastic push-up tube ($1), and it’s a total heat-buster – but the stand also has a lovely pink-tinted and barely sweet applesauce ($1) and a selection of just-picked apples from Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake.
For a light but flavor-packed lunch, consider the colorful tabbouleh salad, stuffed into a whole-wheat pita ($7), at Pita Pocket Bread Sandwiches (Dan Patch Av. at Cosgrove St.), a fresh and refreshing combination of parsley, tomatoes, couscous, olive oil and lemon. It's miles away from deep-fried anything.
The Roast Corn stand (Nelson St. at Dan Patch Av.) is a fresh-foods magnet, focusing on a single product: golden late-summer sweet corn ($3, pictured, above). It's picked daily at a Monticello, Minn., farm. After a quick roast in the husk, it's shucked, hot off the grill, making for an intensely snappy, juicy bite. Of course, the dunk in melted butter is off limits, and stay away from the salt shaker.
When it comes to water, here are a few tips. If you're taking the bus to fair, buy a bottle from the vendors just outside the bus drop-off area on Como Avenue, before entering the fair. They're selling ice-cold bottles for $1. Once inside, the fair's lowest-price bottled water is at Rice Kristie Bars (Carnes Av. between Nelson and Underwood Sts.), where a chilled 20-ounce bottle of water goes for just $1.50. As for fairgrounds' best-tasting free water, it's at Culligan (Dan Patch Av. and Cosgrove St.), just don't expect to fill up your empty bottle.
Simply Nuts & More (Warner Coliseum stocks plenty of salted and honey-roasted options. But make your fairgrounds snack the stand’s unadulterated pistachios. They’re sold in the shell – unshelling them will give you something to do – and prices run $8 for a half-pound, $15 for a whole.
There’s an entertaining side show going on behind the counter at the Pretzel Haus, as the stand’s crew rolls and twists pale dough into enormous fresh-baked pretzels ($5). They’re a great sharable snack: low in fat and cholesterol-free, with a nicely chewy pull and a pleasingly browned, slightly crispy exterior. Don’t even think about brushing them in butter or drizzling them in cheddar cheese sauce. Instead, take advantage of the (gratis) fat-free mustards.
“Healthy” is a relative term, particularly at the State Fair. For those who prefer to refrain from ice cream, but have a hankering for something cool and sweet, here are two stands worth a visit. Frozen Yogurt (Liggett St. at Dan Patch Av.) is exactly what it sounds like, selling four flavors (vanilla, chocolate, some kind of berry and “original,” a tangy-er version of vanilla) with a pair of toppings ($5 and $7). There are blueberries, raspberries, strawberries , blackberries, kiwi fruit and pineapple, and don’t even look at the chocolate chips, crushed cookies or Gummi bears.
Then there’s Dole Whip (Carnes Av. at Nelson St.), which, as the name implies, specializes in a pineapple-flavored soft-serve ($4 and $5) that’s both fat-free and lactose-free. It’s got about as much pineapple pizzazz as you’d expect to find at your friendly neighborhood frozen-yogurt shop, but it passes two crucial hot-day-at-the-fair requirements: it’s got a vaguely tropical bite, and it’s chilly.
In terms of animal proteins, it's hard to know if that poultry or meat has been marinated in a sodium bath, so let's not think about that for a moment and instead consider the benefits of grilled meats vs. their fried counterparts. In that narrow segment, some highlights include the pair of grilled grass-fed lamb chops ($8) at the Lamb Shoppe (Food Building) and the naturally lean bison skewers ($8 and $9.50), finished with peppers and onions, at Minnekabob (Food Building and Dan Patch Av. and Underwood St., pictured, above).
Set aside thoughts of sodium content and concentrate on the other benefits associated with the pickled cucumbers on a stick ($2.50) at Pickle Dog (Carnes Av. at Liggett St.), a deep fryer-free zone where enormous dill pickles are plucked to order from a giant brine jar and speared, State Fair-style, on a stick. It’s crunchy, it’s tangy and, come on, it’s a vegetable. At the fair.
Being both good and good for you is the unwritten dictate behind the Produce Exchange (outside Agriculture Horticulture Building, southeast corner). This branch of the greengrocer inside the Midtown Global Market makes a real effort to ply its fairgrounds customers with a tantalizing variety of ripe, succulent portable snacking, the kind that send juices running down a person’s face, including golden and red-streaked peaches and nectarines so plump that it's easy to see why the staff refers to them as "flavor grenades." Someone keeps busy slicing watermelon, a cooler if filled with juices and there are always a few surprises.
On Friday, it was a basket of tart, orange-fleshed Superior plums (pictured, above), picked the day prior at an orchard in Hastings, alongside a tray of tiny Summercrisp pears from South Haven, Minn. “They’ll rock your world,” said the staffer, who could clearly moonlight as a carnie barker. She was right.