My streak of writing about the Minnesota State Fair continues. Sort of.
Since the mid-1970s — with the Star Tribune, MinnPost and a one-year blog for the Minnesota Monitor during which I went each of the 12 days — I’ve covered food and people, animals and politicians, attractions and much Minnesota-ness at every summer’s end.
My approach was usually a quest for serendipity. Somehow, I figured, a good story would present itself as I ambled for miles around the fairgrounds. I once interviewed the loneliest politician at the fair, a third-party candidate banished to a half-finished booth on Machinery Hill. I wondered about the different French Fries and little donuts and found some kids to help conduct taste tests.
And my favorite: chronicling a day with some northern Minnesota high school band members who’d come to town to march in the daily parade. Before and after the parade, they won some games, lost a lot more and ate a ton. The clarinetist never did realize that the trumpet player was sweet for her.
But there was little happenstance at the fairgrounds this year.
After the 2020 State Fair was canceled due to COVID-19, fair officials came up with the idea for a State Fair Food Parade. With a $20 ticket — plus a $5 fee — cars could drive slowly through a prescribed route past 16 traditional food vendors. Tickets sold out the first day of online sales. It began Thursday, went through the weekend and continues Aug. 27-30 and Sept. 3-7.
We had tickets for 11 a.m. Friday. It was strange.
Even driving on the fairgrounds was unusual. Normally, fairgoers park in remote lots or on nearby lawns, or take transit. This year, you drive in from the north east corner of the grounds off Snelling Avenue and curve around behind the grandstand and its old race track, to a staging area where the Midway is supposed to be. Devoid of the sprawling rides and fun houses, it seems like a parking lot.
We arrived at the check-in at 10:44 a.m., then sat in a queue where the Crazy Mouse Coaster would be in a non-virus year. At 11:03, we pulled ahead into the rolling food fest.
First stop: Turkey to Go. Got a sandwich to go. $9.
Next up: Tom Thumb Donuts; a bag for $6. Masked, like all the workers along the whole route, Olivia Gaul of Stillwater, took the order and said she’d been coming to the fair “her whole life,” and while this was a different experience, “at least it’s something.”
We skipped the bucket o’ French Fries, operating out of its usual building across from the Dairy Building.
All the animal and exhibit buildings were closed, as are most of the permanent kiosks and booths. So the experience isn’t much of a State Fair Experience.
Other missing perennial favorites: the Sky Ride, Big Fat Bacon, cold beer, butterflies, the grand stand booths and concerts, siding and gutter sales, Machinery Hill, 4-H and Ron Schara.
Oddly enough, what I perhaps missed the most, though, was the politicians. Both major parties and some minor ones have permanent locations at the fair, and many individual politicians have smaller booths where they, or their operatives, get to regale potential voters for 12 days just two months before the November election. Not this year.
Scattered along the auto-route were some attractions, however: Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Capt. Ken fire truck, a giant pumpkin and some carrots in front of the Horticulture Building. The whole thing kind of reminded me of Ye Olde Mill (also closed), where you ride along in emptiness for a while and then you pass by a random diorama.
Two spots with live entertainment helped pass the time on the actual 1.5 mile parade route. A little more than half-way through, at the Visitor Plaza, the Jack Brass Band played their lungs out, while a rotating schedule of acts played at the far north end, just past the Little Farm. Twin Cities Trapeze was performing when we went by, which was by design. The owner happens to be our daughter, Katie, who was swinging on the bar as we passed.
By 11:22 a.m., we’d hit the cheese curds, $17 for a bucket that was delivered by Lizzie Johnson of Mendota Heights. She said the job was easier than when she’s worked past fairs in the Food Building, where there are always “million people in line.”
No orders for us at Sweets & Treats, which has cotton candy, popcorn, sno-cones and caramel apples. Wontons at Que Viet, $8, were good.
We skipped pronto pups, malts and steak-on-a-roll booths, but got $6 Jamaican chicken patty at West Indies Soul Food. We should have ordered two.
I got a foot-long hot dog, $7, to bring to my dad. Didn’t need cheese-on-a-stick or lemonade, but got a walleye cake, $9.50 at Giggles’ Campfire Grills and a $5 taco at El Sol Mexican Foods.
The last stop was Sweet Martha’s cookies: $17 for a pail. There’s a limit of 6 pails per vehicle, to keep the line moving, and the kids working there said several cars had bought the limit.
We made our way out out of the grounds just after 12:30 p.m., and pulled over at a roadside rest of sorts, where some folks stop to eat some of their goodies. There’s also a place to buy State Fair merchandise.
Parked under a tree and eating there were Jaylynn Speidel and Brandon Abel of Burnsville, who’d come to the parade with her mother and sister.
They were well-prepared, with their own milk and ketchup. They’d put cheese curds in Tupperware and had a carful of cotton candy and other goodies. In fact, they said they bought at least one of everything, except turkey (because that was the first item, and they figured it might make them sleepy).
“I’ve been coming to the fair every year from before I can remember, at least 28 or 29 years,” Speidel said. “I want to keep this tradition going.”