Just after 10 a.m. on Day 1 of the Minnesota State Fair, Rick Nelson had a problem.
“Ah — we’ve only been through seven places so far!” Nelson said, looking at the time on his phone. “We’d better pick up the pace here, guys. Let’s head for the Food Building.”
When eating, reviewing and live-tweeting 40 new foods at the State Fair in one day, Nelson knows, pace and focus are everything. This is the 20th consecutive State Fair at which Nelson has eaten tragically overcooked pork belly, banana-slurried Tater Tots and every measure of convoluted gut bomb, so that his fellow Minnesotans don’t have to.
Unless, of course, we want to.
It was in 1999 that Nelson, the Star Tribune’s restaurant critic and food writer, assigned himself to spend the first day of the fair trying every new fried, dipped and sauced item at the fair, no matter the number. That day, Nelson became a unique kind of advance scout, bravely eating ahead of the throngs so that no one need arrive on the fairgrounds vulnerable to the first random deep fryer they ran into.
Nelson does not review the standard fair menu — corn dogs, mini doughnuts, mini cookies, pork chops on sticks, the turkey legs, all of which are well-known quantities.
What he does do — at some personal gastrointestinal peril — is triage. He walks calmly into the fair’s chaos of consumables and separates the edible from the inedible, the sublime from the sewage. And his commitment has not gone unnoticed.
Dennis Larson, the fair’s food and beverage manger for the past 17 years, said he brags nationally that Minnesota’s fair has such great food that “we get reviewed by a professional food critic.”
“We have been trying for years to steer interest and energy away from what I call the ‘fried food freak show,’ ” Larson said. “I don’t know if Rick meant to help us do that, but he has.”
“People around here talk about a ‘Rick Nelson bump,’ ” Larson said. “Sales at a place can jump 50 percent on a good review.”
Cherie Peterson would second that. She’s co-owned Sausage Sister and Me at the fair for 16 years. Before Nelson affectionately reviewed her Twisted Sister sausage, she was selling about 450 of them each day. After his review: 2,500.
“Let me tell you something,” she said. “When we develop new foods, we always ask ourselves, ‘What would Rick Nelson think about this?’ You just have to.”
Logistics, curiosity, precision
Each year, in the days leading to the fair, Nelson acquires the official new foods list. This year, that list had 27 new foods and five new vendors. He also found 10 more newcomers unlisted by the fair.
Nelson then pairs that list with an 11-by-17 fairgrounds map. That allows him to create his “food route,” beginning with breakfast (two kinds of waffles and French toast this year) and winding through tacos, tuna bowls, pulled pork, floats, Tater Tots, ceviche, sliders, cakes, corn, puff pastry, meatballs, cheese puffs, grilled peaches, potpies and enough sausages to choke a linebacker.
Nelson is inquisitive (he often circles back to booths with questions about ingredients and technique), generous when he finds quality (the Farmers Union Coffee Shop’s blueberry-rhubarb cobbler: “A taste of Minnesota summer, in a cup. Warm compote, real whipped cream … a total winner.”) and candid about misses (the makers of the peanut butter and jelly sausages and the cotton candy-wrapped ice cream could not have been happy with his remarks in Saturday’s paper).
So how does Nelson eat 50 pounds of State Fair food in one day, and live to write about it? He has a volunteer team of co-tasters and food wranglers who accompany him. It’s his family.
Originally, his mother was his co-taster (“It was a good way to get some extra time with my mom,” Nelson said). About eight years ago he enlisted his brother, Todd, and nephew, Noah, now 19. (“It’s a great way to get some quality time with Rick,” Todd said.)
By necessity, given the press of time and the breadth of the menu, they have become a precision team.
For example, as Nelson tasted, photographed and tweeted three items at the Farmers Union booth Thursday morning, he dispatched Noah ahead to get in what he knew would be a long line at the next stop, the Hamline Church Dining Hall.
Sometimes when Nelson is in line for one target, Todd or Noah peel off to fetch other food nearby. That way Nelson can taste, review, photograph and sometimes tweet one food while waiting in line for another.
And since the eating must continue, unabated, for 10 solid hours, the Nelsons all generally observe a strict one-bite-per-item rule. (Noah several times went in for second or even third bites, but as his uncle pointed out, “He’s 19.”)
The Nelsons move through the crowds like any other family at the fair, but Rick is not incognito.
He’s often greeted at booths (“Rick!”) and invited back into the kitchens. This year, he ran into Travel Channel star Andrew Zimmern (hugs), and submitted to an on-camera interview about fair food for TV’s “Entertainment Tonight.” And while he was in the Food Building photographing tacos on the top of a garbage can, a man said, “Hey — are you Rick? I’m following your tweets right now!”
Finally, late in the afternoon of the fair’s first day, Nelson trudged to his car.
Ahead lay hours of writing, warning Minnesotans off the fair’s indigestions and introducing its new delights.
“I usually feel awful afterward,” Nelson said. So he stops off on the way to his office to take a shower and change clothes.
And, he said, “Get a salad.”
Tony Brown is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. He can be reached at email@example.com.