Minnesotans are proud of their State Fair, and rightfully so. But just four hours south of the Twin Cities, another wildly popular State Fair is the pride of its own people — the Iowa State Fair. The Star Tribune traveled south recently to see whether Iowa could truly contend with its northern neighbor. We ate our way through both Get-Togethers, and the verdict may surprise you.
Iowa’s creativity lacked this year, with the most innovative new entry being a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Corn in a cup was literally corn in a cup with some “magic dust” on top, though I didn’t detect anything magical about it. Otherwise, it was all about amping up old favorites: making the corn dog gluten-free; flavoring the funnel cake with pumpkin spice; chilling the beer to 27 degrees.
Minnesota, on the other hand, went all out by innovating on form. A sundae made out of bread pudding. A cupcake made out of macaroni and cheese (more on that later). And so many international flavors converging in Falcon Heights — kimchi, curry and lots of Sriracha.
Winner: Minnesota, clearly.
Contenders: Iowa’s Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb vs. Minnesota’s Meatloaf-on-a-Stick.
I usually go for a simple, wonderful pork chop on a stick, but this year I opted for another wood-skewered protein. Though not at all what I expected, the Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb was good, hearty eating: a half-pound of brisket, ground up and formed into a sort of meatloaf, wrapped in bacon and glazed with a sweet chile sauce. To call it filling would be an understatement. The smoky/sweet/salty/meaty notes were perfectly in balance. It was juicy and, at $7 for all that meat, a bargain.
After trying a few flubbed meat dishes in Minnesota, I made a last-ditch effort to find a worthy contender to Iowa’s entry. I found it in the Blue Barn’s Meatloaf-on-a-Stick, which was so moist (other meatloaf fair vendors, take note) and flavorful, with bits of onion swirled in. The meat mix was kind of floury, though, and despite adding some nice fluffiness to an otherwise heavy block of beef, it cheapened it slightly. The crispy exterior, even doused in a super-sweet glaze, was a plus.
Winner: These two came close, but Iowa pulled ahead purely because of function — a wide tongue depressor helped keep the mass of meat upright, while the Minnesota offering’s flimsy little stick rendered portability nil.
Macaroni and cheese
Contenders: Iowa’s deep-fried macaroni and cheese vs. Minnesota’s Mac & Cheese Cupcake.
Neither fair managed to pull off the classic combo of macaroni and cheese in their respective attempts at fair-ifying an already perfect dish. The deep-fried version in Iowa was a heavy brick that had been dunked earlier in hot oil and kept warm under a heat lamp. The crust, while a nice golden color, was more fluffy than crunchy. Inside, meanwhile, what should have been gooey cheesy goodness was just bland and chewy — not even close to that radiant orange Kraft stuff. The accompanying bacon bits and sour cream overpowered what little flavor it had. But at least it was moist.
The cupcake, Minnesota’s bright idea at Lulu’s Public House, was a little too overloaded with breadcrumbs, which sapped the edges of any moisture at all. The deep interior of the hearty cupcake, which I still believe is a brilliant idea, had a couple gooey bites in it that made me just want more of that, sans paper liner. Despite its execution issues, the baked orb was extremely likable.
Winner: Minnesota wins purely because of Iowa’s unpalatable deep-fried breading that had sat out for too long.
Contenders: Iowa’s Bauder’s peppermint bar vs. Minnesota’s Butter Queen Coffee ice cream from Izzy’s.
It may not be the hottest fair on record, but you can’t go to a fair without ingesting insane amounts of ice cream. At least I can’t, especially the Bauder’s peppermint bar — a legend in Iowa. The red peppermint ice cream (specked with candy shards) is sandwiched between two thick, gooey layers of fudge and then smashed with crumbled chocolate wafer cookies, all wrapped up nicely in red-and-white checkered paper. It’s big enough to share, if you don’t mind melty ice cream cooties (hey, it’s still ice cream).
In Minnesota, I opted for a new entry from Izzy’s: browned butter and coffee ice cream. It was lovely, refreshing even, like a nice iced coffee on a summer afternoon. The flakes of chocolate espresso were rich little treats nestled like prizes throughout the ice cream. It was as close to perfect as a scoop could be. (Note of advice: Don’t be lured in by the completely raw-tasting mini-doughnut dough flavor, which is not OK.)
Winner: This is tough. I can’t choose. I won’t. You can’t make me. I’ll be back for both of them next year.
Chocolate chip cookies
Contenders: Iowa’s Barksdale cookies vs. Minnesota’s Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies.
Both fairs seem to be of the brilliant mind-set that cookies are best sold by the bucket. In Iowa, Barksdale does the honors, with sheet pans full of the mini cookies on constant rotation in and out of the oven. Vendors use giant spatulas to slip them off their trays and into an overflowing plastic tub that takes at least four hungry people to eat enough to get it down to sealable level. The cookies are best warm, as all cookies generally are, but even days later, hold their softness. And they’re good on the first bite, but it’s hard to have too many — they’re overly sweet, like salt was somehow left out of the recipe.
The Iowa buckets are popular, but Minnesota’s version, Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar, is an institution. And there’s a reason for that. The smell alone makes people swoon as they wait in lines that extend across the street. While Iowa’s cookies have a barely cooked quality, Sweet Martha’s deep-brown discs are crisp and quite chewy, with huge chocolate chips to balance out the texture. The sweetness is a little overpowering, though, and the cookies don’t retain their allure once cooled.
Winner: Minnesota should win on status alone: the cookies are seriously beloved. Walking around the fair with one of those ubiquitous buckets makes you very popular.