There are so many reasons to lament the cancellation of the 2020 Minnesota State Fair, and high on that list is the food.
No other gathering in Minnesota — and likely the whole country — offers as many creative, over-the-top ways to bust apart any fantasy of sensible eating. And for 12 magical days each year, maybe that's OK.
Deep-fried cheese curds, giant turkey legs, jumbo cones of cotton candy, gallon jugs of lemonade and buckets of cookies have all become icons of late August, a balm that helps soothe the foreboding rumble of the last days of summer slipping away.
But this year, with the fair canceled over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, fans of fair treats have to work a little harder to get their fixes.
Here are 10 fun ways to capture just a bit of fair flavor (and, who are we kidding, fair calories) before summer's end.
1. Go to the drive-through (if you're lucky).
Sixteen State Fair food vendors will be up and running at the fairgrounds over the next three weekends for the first-ever Minnesota State Fair Food Parade. Unfortunately, tickets for the "multi-hour" drive-through experience sold out in a frantic 2 ½ hours, frustrating many potential buyers.
Those with deep pockets might still have a shot at a 5-pound pail of fries. The $20 vehicle admission tickets — which don't include food — have been appearing for resale for up to $350 on Craigslist.
2. Track down a State Fair food vendor in the wild.
With the fair called off, many longtime food vendors have been setting up their stands in parking lots, on roadsides, outside breweries and at dormant fairgrounds across the state. One Faribault woman is making Pronto Pups in her driveway. Others are doing residencies at big box stores, like iPierogi, which has been dishing out Eastern European fare from the lot of a Menards.
Customers are able to find their favorites thanks to a 173,000-member "Fair Food Finder" Facebook group and an app (foodfinder.app) launched by a mother and son who — like many Minnesotans — were not content to let a summer go by without lemonade and cheese curds.
3. Order a fair-themed meal kit.
State Fair to Go boxes — the Blue Apron of fair food — come with a make-at-home feast for a family of five. The $59.95 kits contain all the ingredients and instructions needed to master mini doughnuts, corn dogs, French fries, fried cheese curds, grilled sweet corn and Sweet Martha's frozen cookie dough. And anyone can partake; the boxes can be shipped nationwide. (Order at statefairtogo.com.)
A $95 family meal kit from Travail in Robbinsdale, available next week only (Aug. 20 and 22), takes fair food to fine dining heights with shrimp-and-lobster corn dogs, pork chop on a stick, lemonade, funnel cake and more that can be prepared at home. Deep-frying novices can add on a gallon of oil and a thermometer and let the Travail team do the coaching. (Order at exploretock.com/ travailkitchen.)
Produce Exchange is selling its acclaimed grilled Sweet Dream peaches as a meal kit. Top warm, juicy peaches with herbed goat cheese and raw honey, or extra thick Greek yogurt and pie crumbs. There is a catch, though. The kit only comes in one size, with 10 pounds of peaches ($80). As if that were a problem. (Order at tinyurl.com/yyjmwwmg.)
4. Learn how to make fair food like a pro.
Feeling ambitious? Many fair-inspired foods are not out of reach to the home cook. Cooks of Crocus Hill has three upcoming in-person cooking classes, including one that proves anything can be eaten on a stick (caprese salad, prosciutto-wrapped shrimp, grilled pineapple, you name it). "Dinner on a Stick" is Aug. 20 at the Stillwater location, $80.
"Minnesota State Fair Faves!" on Aug. 22 in Minneapolis teaches participants how to make grilled corn, mini doughnuts, Mancini's meatball sub and chocolate chip cookies, $85. And "Blue-Ribbon Bake-Off," on Aug. 29 in Stillwater, instructs bakers on how to make prizewinning recipes, including cherry-chocolate walnut bars, cranberry-orange crunch muffins and Mexican hot chocolate brownies, $85.
Register at cooksofcrocushill.com.
5. Or just roll a pickle in some ham and call it a treat.
Many of the fair's most iconic treats are also the simplest. Pickle dogs, for example, take minimal kitchen skills. Spread some cream cheese on a slice of ham, place a pickle spear at the edge of the ham and roll up. Repeat.
You'll find recipes from fairs all across America in "Fair Foods: The Most Popular and Offbeat Recipes From America's State & County Fairs," a 2017 cookbook by George Geary (Santa Monica Press, $24.95). Try Iowa's triple cheeseburger doughnuts, or a Hawaiian county fair's coconut-macadamia-crusted shrimp.
Or keep it closer to home with another of Minnesota's best: Put some grapes in the freezer. Wait. Ta-da! Frozen grapes.
6. Enter a cookie decorating contest.
Pie-makers and jam-canners lost out, too, with the cancellation of the fair's creative activities competitions. But one new contest gives bakers a chance to compete virtually. The fair is running a cookie-decorating contest, and the cookies with the best frosting-based depiction of a State Fair activity will win two tickets to next year's fair.
For the baking-impaired, there are other ways to play. Enter photos of your crop art, K-12 artwork and photography and — could this be any more Minnesotan? — a fishing-themed quilt on-a-stick.
Enter through Aug. 27. Rules and details at mnstatefair.org/competitions/competition-2020.
7. Drink some wacky beer.
Breweries are pouring some of the fair's zaniest specialties for a limited time. Stillwater's Lift Bridge has its Mini Donut Beer and Key Lime Pie Beer on tap. Mankato Brewery is canning its Cake'd Up Celebration Beer, which draws on the flavors of deep-fried funnel cake and French silk pie. Excelsior Brewing Co. has S'mores Beer — a memorable brew from the fair's Giggles' Campfire Grill — on the taproom menu.
Others took on the challenge of inventing brand-new beers inspired by the fair. Eastlake Craft Brewery, at the Midtown Global Market, came up with Pick-a-Peck Sour Dill Pickle Gose.
Pryes Brewing Co. collaborated with Blue Plate Restaurants to brew Pryes Winning Cobbler Blueberry Pastry Ale.
The State Fair compiled a list of places where you can get some of the specialty brews from fairs past; find them at mnstatefair.org/general-info/specialty-brews-and-beverages.
8. Visit fair food vendors for favorites all year long.
You don't need an admission ticket to get fair treats from the vendors with home bases around the Twin Cities.
Manny's Tortas, Produce Exchange and Hot Indian are in residency at the Midtown Global Market, and they've got fair-style specials through Sept. 6.
West Indies Soul Food serves its beloved jerk chicken from a food truck in St. Paul. The Birchwood Cafe's renowned heirloom tomato and sweet corn BLT made the leap from the fair to curbside pickup at the Seward neighborhood restaurant. Que Viet might not have its giant egg roll on the menu, but the regular size rolls hit the spot (stick optional). Bridgeman's serves its eight-scoop La La Palooza Sundae at its new Woodbury parlor.
And the iconic Blue Barn's fairgrounds menu is popping up at its seven Twin Cities sister restaurants, including Edina Grill and Groveland Tap.
9. Look for fair flavors at even more restaurants.
Even local eateries that don't peddle their food at the fair are using the 2020 hiatus to bring the Great Minnesota Get-Together to their menus, with specials now through early September.
Here's just a sampling: Cafe Alma's spiced doughnut holes. Smack Shack's lobster corn dogs. Surly Brewing Company's version of a Pronto Pup. Thr3 Jack's bucket of bite-sized cookies. Animales BBQ's meatballs on a stick, and neighboring Minnesota Nice Cream's dill pickle soft serve.
Every vendor at Potluck, the Rosedale Mall food hall, has at least one fair-inspired item on the menu, including a gargantuan cream puff from Betty & Earl's Biscuit Kitchen. So do the vendors at Midtown Global Market (hello, Pham's Rice Bowl's cranberry cream cheese wontons).
10. Go grocery shopping.
Did you know many State Fair food vendors also sell their signature products in the freezer aisle? Izzy's Ice Cream, JonnyPops, Nordic Waffles, Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar, Thelma's ice cream sandwiches and Sara's Tipsy Pies are some of the fair foods you can stock up on to enjoy year-round. So, make some room in that freezer and keep the fair spirit going till we meet again, in 2021.