The art and business of state fair food
Crazy state fair food has become a sensation in one generation. It's a big money-maker and one of the major forms of fair entertainment.
Forget about the bearded ladies of yore. State fairs are about deep-fried cherry gummy bears dipped in vanilla batter, topped with powdered sugar on a stick (thanks, Ohio) or deep-fried beer (big of you, Texas) and deep-fried bologna on a stick (why, Minnesota?).
Not to be outdone, the Iowa State Fair's announcement Wednesday of 15 new foods for this year's fair — its most ever — included the introduction of brisket with jalapeno cheese, wrapped in bacon, slathered in chili sauce and on a stick with a deep-fried cherry pie for dessert.
All this state food fanfare is much more than a casual folly. Each year, it generates viral Internet buzz for the events that roll out new concoctions, as well as millions in revenue.
"When it comes down to it, we are an event like any other. Some come for the entertainment, but everybody comes for the food," said Gary Slater, Iowa State Fair's chief executive officer.
Slater was busy doing media interviews Wednesday for a waiting public, hungry for news of the new foods. So was the concession manager at the Minnesota State Fair, where its announcement of 40 new foods Tuesday created such a stir that its web search traffic for new food outpaced every other fair post on its site by 4 to 1, including the scramble for Carrie Underwood concert tickets.
At the State Fair of Texas, they correctly determined that the fair "was an eating event," said Carey Risinger, senior vice president of food, beverage and retail. So in the 11th year of its food contest for new foods at the fair, the announcement has become "like a Super Bowl press conference."
"It is the single most positive thing the State Fair of Texas has done in 100 years," he said. "It's catapulted us to national fame."
Concessions and capitalism
It's not just for fun. The Iowa State Fair grossed $14.5 million on food and beverage last year; the Minnesota State Fair grossed $30 million, and that's without alcoholic beverages included; Texas made a million a day over a 28-day run.
If aliens visited Earth, they would conclude that U.S. fairgoers are consuming food on behalf of the rest of the world. That's a take on a joke by comedian Jim Gaffigan.
How did we get here at the fair, all gluttony and grease?
"We are all addicted to food," Slater said, "and to having something that is tasty and something to look forward to. I won't say it's unhealthy, but maybe calorie-packed. Concessionaires have to put their thinking caps on."
Joni Bell of The Rib Shack is among the Iowa State Fair vendors in the running to become the New Fair food champion — of all the new foods the fair picks, one wins the award for best new food.
Her aforementioned Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb, a sort of meat-on-meat piece of culinary art, took two months of planning.
"We call it concocting," she said.
Others might call it capitalism. Her 2014 new food was a macaroni and cheese with bacon and brisket. "My gosh," she said, "I made 25,000 pans of it."
That is no exaggeration.
The growth of 'giggle foods'
Look, people still go for the state fair basics. In Minnesota, where nearly half of its food sales go to the top 10 old-time basics, it's the chocolate chip cookies you carry around in a pail. In Washington state, it's the scones. In Wisconsin, it's the cream puffs. Corn dogs are still the thing in Iowa.
But a generation ago, a trend started. Minnesota claims to have started it, ramping up already rich foods with more fat and sugar by introducing deep-fried candy bars 16 years ago.
"It was phenomenal. The vendor said he had to clear out every Sam's Club in the area of candy bars," said Dennis Larson, license administration manager at the Minnesota State Fair. "Then we thought deep-fried Twinkies was silly, but that had staying power."
Things started to get crazy, mixing all kinds of guilty pleasures together, deep-frying Coca-Cola and Pop-Tarts and everything that didn't move. At Ohio's state fair, those fried gummy bears fit nicely into the idea that people wanted to try foods at the fair they couldn't try anywhere else, maybe on planet Earth, said Alicia Shoults, fair spokesperson.
"These are what I call giggle foods," said Risinger in Texas. "Maybe you don't care for it, but you giggle when you eat it."
The Iowa State Fair tried deep-fried butter. Didn't work after the novelty wore off. "It was a flash in the pan," Slater said. "We tried a lot of different (deep-fried) candy bars, too, but you don't see those around now."
It got competitive. Contests popped up for new foods. And boards of state fair employees were enlisted to decide what new foods to allow. The hamburger stand can't decide it wants to sell deep-fried Oreos, for example.
"We had someone do deep-fried bubble gum and they trademarked it," Risinger said. "The next thing you know, Florida is doing it. So the vendor had to send a lawyer letter. It's gotten to be sophisticated."
A new whiff of state fair sophistication?
It has also fit neatly into a trend of eating food while standing or walking around, in festivals or at city food trucks.
"In general, we like people to sit down, focus on their food and eat it intuitively," said Sally Barclay, who conducts employee nutrition clinics at Iowa State University. "They are less likely to do that walking around and, all the sudden, where did the food go? Did I finish that?"
She'll spare you the nutrition lecture, because many just splurge this one time of year, but there are healthy options on the menu at the fair, including fruits and salads, she said.
In fact, says Minnesota's Larson, a corner has turned toward "more serious, nutritional food." Even what some might call gourmet casual. For example, tacos with peppercorn-rubbed pork, layered with Norwegian Jarlsberg cheese, pickled cabbage slaw, red onion, apple-smoked bacon and lingonberry relish sour cream, topped with pork cracklings.
Of Iowa's new offerings, the corn in a cup with pork chorizo, chayote cheese, lime juice, sour cream and "magic dust" was said to be downright artistic at its unveiling.
But let's not get crazy.
"I can put in a guy with a 10-foot salad bar and he would be out of business," Larson said.
A deep-fried bar dusted with powdered sugar would be a winner, though. Write it down.