Illustration by Eddie Guy
Andrew Zimmern on the Minnesota State Fair
Forget Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, or New York—the fair is Andrew’s favorite place on earth. Each year he goes every day during its 12-day run. Here, he explains what makes the great Minnesota get-together so dang great.
I first experienced The Great Minnesota Get-Together in 1992. I went with a girl I had recently met. The fair was her suggestion, and the Mighty Midway seemed fun, so it was an easy yes. I fell in love that night. Not with the girl, but with the swell of humanity and the cow barn. I adored it all. The lights were twinkly, the sweet corn was the best I’d ever tasted, and the air seemed warm with the promise of a kiss. From the Grandstand, you could hear the Steve Miller Band playing in dull, muted thuds. The people-watching alone was beyond my wildest dreams. I fell pretty hard.
I couldn’t tell you the girl’s name, can’t quite place a face, but I remember a moment at the Ferris wheel. My date and I walked up to the carney and bought tickets; there were a few people standing in line, so I slid the guy a $5 bill and asked to ride with my date in a gondola, just the two of us. He shook his head. He was an old, toothless guy who smelled of machine oil, drugstore cologne, and beer. I tried a $20 bill. He shook his head again and said, “Taking money wouldn’t be right at the fair.” Though my bribe didn’t work, the fact that he refused it melted my cynical New York City heart.
I went back to the fair that same year—on the last day—and met legendary racecar driver Dick Trickle. At that point I felt like I had fallen through the looking glass. I knew I’d be back the following August.
Though I’ve been told I have one of the more enviable jobs in the food and travel worlds, I get asked all the time, “What’s the one thing that you love to do with your time off?” It might sound weird, but the 12-day-long Minnesota State Fair is the only time of the year when I don’t plan anything. My wife and I go there every day. She used to live on the fairgrounds, so our roots run deep.
I would rather be at the fair than anywhere else in the world. Why? First, the people. From bumping into Garrison Keillor at Ye Old Mill to chatting up the wonderful staff at Sweet Martha’s Cookies, I could stay all day and night. I make a point to see every installation in every building, because if you go every day, you can take your time (plus, you never know what’ll happen: I once sheared a goat’s balls before a big competition, and the goat won a ribbon!). I peruse each art exhibit, meet every rabbit, and check out all the crop art. I also play the plate-breaking game at the Midway, which saves me a week of therapy, and I even have my office holiday party at the fair. We’ve celebrated Christmas in the summer each year for a decade.
I love the fair so much that I want to open a food stand across from the CHS Miracle of Birth Center called The Miracle of Lunch. My son is very proud that in his daddy’s TV show, he’s seen me eat the newborn version of every animal in that barn. In fact, baby ducks are a staple of village street food in several countries, and they are delicious deep-fried whole.
I have applied to get my own booth at the fair, and it almost happened. It’s still a dream of mine. But for now, I’m content ordering from other people’s booths, because let’s face it: Food is a big reason why we show up. I mostly stay away from the new foods. The marketed commercialization of the annual roundup of trendy or unusual bites has created some of the most awful-tasting food on the planet. I stick with the classics and the occasional pearl of a new item (I hold out hope this year for the spiffed-up poutine). I get a foot-long every day from the same cart, though Carla Wood’s Gizmo sandwich might be the most perfect food at the fair (discuss). It’s an Italian-seasoned loose meat sandwich with tomato and mozz rolled torpedo-style in a bun, all made on premise from scratch.
Clockwise from top Left: Andrew Zimmern drops by a few of his favorite fair food spots, including Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar, Cinnie Smiths, and The Mouth Trap Cheese Curds. Andrew bites into a cob from the Corn Roast.
Photos by Andy Richter/Courtesy Travel Channel; Top Right Photo: Zimmern Portrait by Steve Henke
Among my other fair food traditions: I take a huge cup of Nitro Ice Cream to the 1919 Classic American Draft Root Beer stand and make my own float; I devour Colorado peaches sprinkled with chili-lime salt at the Midtown Global Market stand; I eat an apple cider freezie every day; I order Cinnie Smiths’ criminally underrated baby cinnamon rolls; I laugh when I pass the Turkey To Go stand that sits across from the poultry barn; and I visit the Fresh French Fries booth with my wife, who starts each day with an order of fries (she ends each day with cotton candy).
Additional props to Mouth Trap and Original Deep Fried Cheese Curds, Kiwanis Malts, Tom Thumb Donuts, the booths that roast their own turkey legs, Charlie at Famous Dave’s (he does a nice job with some of their new offerings), Sausage by Cynthia, the deep-fried smelts in the food building, the Minneapple Pie in the Agriculture Horticulture Building, and Izzy’s Ice Cream.
Of course, not everything at the fair is perfect. The worst bathrooms are under the walkway to the Grandstand by Carousel Park. They need a makeover, pronto. Also, the new Heritage Square space lacks soul. The old space needed an overhaul, but I miss its kitsch. And in terms of what’s missing at the fair, we need the Hmongtown Marketplace food vendors to get in one of these years.
But you can’t hate on this big, greasy spectacle for too long because the fair is the fair. If you don’t like crowds, I can’t help you. That said, I’d advise going in the morning and leaving by 11 am. I love the early mornings. When I used to work in live local news, I was there each day at 5 am. It’s quiet, and the camaraderie between visitors at that hour is really special.
But if you can handle crowds, being at the fair with the masses is what it’s all about. Seeing your neighbors. Laughing at yourself and others. Celebrating your state’s heritage. Chatting with local politicians. I could go on. Way back in 1992, I realized that the fair isn’t so much about the rides, the food, the cows, or the Grandstand shows. It’s about the people: superb, funny, sleazy, unwashed, overly primped, crazy, awesome people.
AZ's State Fair Scavenger Hunt
A few years back, I made a list of things to keep your eyes peeled for at the Great Minnesota Get-Together: mullets, crazy tattoos, award-winning baked goods, celebrities, unintentional innuendos, all of it. Give it a try. As you find each of them, take a picture and tag it with #AZscavengerhunt on Instagram. It’s a blast.
- Political seed art
- The largest bull
- Selfie on the Tilt-A-Whirl
- Temper tantrum
- Non-ironic mullet
- An unfortunate tattoo
- Couple in matching outfits
- Bikini T-shirt
- Unintentional innuendos
- Bad taxidermy
- Airbrushed clothing
- Pajamas in public
- Square dancing
- Monty from Monty’s Traveling Reptile Show
- The biggest pig
- Celebrity sighting
- Celebrity doppelgänger sighting
- Someone in a food coma
- All-you-can-drink milk overdose
- Hair long enough to trip over
- Someone who clearly thought this was the Renaissance Festival
- Jersey Shore wannabe
- Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar (bonus points for a pic with Sweet Martha)
- Tractor ride
- Family with fair hair
- Someone suffering from motion sickness
- Live animal birth
- Butterfly landing (bonus points if you pose like a Disney princess)
- Dairy princess posing for butter sculpture
- Live infomercial
- Sing along with only one person singing
- Find your own doppelgänger
- Couple making out
- Discarded underwear
- The oldest bonsai
- Someone who looks like they’re enjoying carrying around an oversized stuffed animal
- Double-fisting corn dogs
- Someone you suspect has a hoarding problem
- The longest hot dog at the fair
- Someone who is way too dressed up for the fair
- A blue ribbon–winning cake
- Butt cleavage
- Fanny pack
- More food than hands
- An earnest exhibit that’s unintentionally hilarious/horrifying
- An invention that nobody would ever really need