How long has it been since fairs felt a little dangerous? Since carnies lounged beside the greased sprockets of rickety rides, speaking their secret language so the rest of us–the “marks”–would not understand? Midways trafficked not only in plush toys but also in dark impulses that seemed even darker against the glare of bright lights.
State fairs always seemed a little safer than the county kind, and way more than those carnivals that just showed up on the edge of town. From the start, which was in 1841 in Syracuse, N.Y., the state fair convened to showcase the glories of the jurisdiction’s livestock and agriculture. Today shiny new tractors and combines still stand atop Machinery Hill in St. Paul. Teenagers still sack out on sleeping bags in livestock barns from Des Moines to Dallas. And yet, on every midway in the land, a hint of the forbidden lurks as diabolical chefs proffer strange new temptations.
State-fair food, once defined by pie contests in the exhibition hall and elephant ears by the rides, has evolved into something elemental–the carnival freak show reincarnated, rolled in batter, dipped in oil and served on a stick. To say it beggars description is to tell a lie. The names alone can do that work.
Chicken-fried bacon. Hot-beef sundae. Cookie fries. Deep-fried butter balls. Python kebabs. Deep-fried mashed potatoes on a stick. Fried beer.
Fair enough: fried beer requires elaboration. Crowned “most creative” food for the state fair of Texas in 2010, fried beer sloshes inside a “pocket” that resembles a ravioli. Its inventor said it was like biting into a pretzel chased by a sip of suds. The innovation prevailed in a field that included fried frozen margarita, fried lemonade and fried club salad.
Texas also happened to be the setting for the 1962 film State Fair, a musical that took as its protagonists a farm family called the Frakes. The folks are keen on the livestock and cooking competitions. The youngsters–Pat Boone and Pamela Tiffin–were more interested in romance. Sound right? Even state fairs had a bawdy side: “Women place their heads on risqué drawings” runs the caption on a LIFE magazine photo from the 1955 Iowa State Fair, smack in the middle of the first Eisenhower Administration. The photo has beaming gals standing behind a board painted to present them topless. Today it’s difficult to find a use for the word risqué in almost any setting. But at 1,756 calories, a serving of deep-fried mac and cheese is universally recognized as the definition of sinful.
So the fair is still about loosening inhibitions. But that now means loosening your belt. The exuberant excess implied in a foot-long hot dog has grown in all directions, not all of them appealing. The maggot melts at the Colorado State Fair and the mealworm-covered caramel apples at Arizona’s may have attracted more headlines than diners. Thinly sliced pig’s ears are no longer at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, as the fair there is called.
It’s the one I grew up attending, and not only is the Minnesota State Fair the nation’s most popular, as measured by average daily attendance, its history also tracks the migration of fair fare from biological necessity to whatever it is that’s going on now. For decades, hungry fairgoers found sustenance inside dining halls operated by churches. There were dozens on the fairgrounds before the Great Depression. One of the two that survives today, the Hamline Methodist Church Dining Hall, is famous for its ham loaf and still innovating: its snowcap mini waffle sundae made the list of “new foods” available at the 2019 fair.
The list, the release of which always makes news, includes only three “on a stick” foods this year, possibly marking a transition, though likely not a healthy one. The loneliest stand at my last state fair offered “fruit on a stick.” A passerby read the sign aloud to his companion, paused and, in a deadpan that was itself delicious, asked: “Do you remember fruit?”
This appears in the July 22, 2019 issue of TIME.