Times change about as fast as glaciers at the Minnesota State Fair. But there's a subtle shift underway this year below the water tower in the northeast corner formerly known as Machinery Hill.

At this mecca of deep-fried everything, salad is making a stand where big-wheeled tractors once dominated the landscape.

Every morning about 6 a.m., salad prep workers Vicky Welle, Stephanie Drake and Jane Gillespie start skewering grape tomatoes, mozzarella balls and basil leaves on six-inch wooden toothpicks.

"We talk about politics and sex, except when Jane's around," Welle said with a laugh.

They complete 100 skewers every 20 minutes -- or 3,000 a day. Then college student Chelsey Doepner, 22, and dozens of her fellow assemblers lay three of the skewers on a plastic boat loaded with Minnesota wild rice, dried cranberries, orange slices, mixed greens and a little mayo to glue it all together.

Drizzle on some balsamic vinegar glaze and you have salad, yes, Caprese-style salad on a stick - the newest fair food for $5.50 a shot.

"People can only eat so many mini-donuts," Gillespie, 60, said with a shrug. "It's not only healthy and nutritious, it's great tasting."

Last year, Tim "Giggles" Weiss introduced chicken-fried bacon at his Campfire Grill and sold 9,000 pieces, or 2.2 tons, of the greasy delights that are back for a second season. He's on pace to move out 12,000 Northwoods Salads on a Stick this year. Paint the revolution with numbers and you get roughly 108,000 grape tomatoes, 108,000 mozzarella balls, 1 ton of mixed field greens and 80 gallons of balsamic vinegar dressing during the dozen days of the fair.

"My benchmark for a successful new item is about 8,000, and we're on pace for 12,000 or maybe 15,000," said Weiss, in his 12th year of peddling walleye cakes, salmon wraps, elk burgers and other North Woodsy chow.

Fulfilling a dream

Before forging a career as an oncology nurse, Drake fell in love with the fair. One grandmother, Melba Ness, lived a few blocks away and would pull her to the fairgrounds in a red wagon, introducing her to rainbow ice cream, foot-long hot dogs, animal barns and all the milk you can drink.

"My lifelong dream was to work at the fair," she said, puncturing marble-sized tomatoes on to skewer after skewer.

At a Vikings-Eagles game a couple of years ago, Gillespie, a St. Paul food broker and caterer, and her family joined Weiss' clan at a tailgating party. She brought along her signature dish, Caprese salad. An idea was born.

"We've got to put this on a stick and sell it at the fair," said Weiss, a long time Twin Cities bar owner and self-promoter.

He turned to Alex Sadowsky, the executive chef at nearby Gabe's by the Park, to execute the details. Sadowsky came up with the wild rice to give it some Minnesota panache.

"We went from the worst health food last year, chicken-fried bacon, to the best," Gillespie said, popping another cheese ball on a stick.

An unscientific survey backs up the bravado.

"It's got a good texture and a good mixture of flavors," said Jeanne Olson of St. Paul, after devouring one of her three skewers. "On a scale of 1-to-10, I'd give it an 11. Surprisingly good for fair food."

Mary Jo Erickson, who came down from Otter Tail County, said that "it's got everything you need for a healthy meal and it's very Minnesotan."

Two-year-old Gabby Bach of Ramsey wasn't so convinced. When her mom, surgical tech student Andrea, offered up a skewer to her daughter in the stroller, the toddler gently pushed it away and pointed to her preferred chicken strips. Mom was happy to keep the salad stick for herself.

"I love tomatoes and mozzarella together and the wild rice caught my attention," Bach said. "I'll start healthy and end my day with the junk."

Weiss, who flits from table to table, met one woman who bristled at the balsamic dressing. So he brought her a dry one.

"Other than that, it's been overwhelmingly positive," he said. "We've hit the vegetarian market."

Of course, this is the Minnesota State Fair, so fried walleye cakes are on pace to outsell salad on a stick to the tune of 17,000 to 12,000. "Walleye is still the backbone and staple of our operation," Weiss said. "But Salad on a Stick will be back next year. It's been a clever new product for us."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767