Deep-fried everything on a stick

 I’m going to reveal a secret: I’ve lived in Minnesota all my life but have never taken part in that quintessential rite of late summer – the consuming of deep-fried cheese curds (or deep-fried anything, for that matter) at the Minnesota State Fair.

Does this mean I’m not a true Minnesotan?

It’s hard to comprehend how the hot, greasy, calorie-laden culinary offerings at the state fair can be so bad for us, yet so decadently appealing.

What do we love? Time magazine compiled a list a few weeks ago of America’s favorite traditional fair food: funnel cakes, pie, corn dogs, cotton candy, caramel apples, corn on the cob.

Tame, tame, tame.

The state fair food booths these days are capable of so much more.

Among the new treats at the Minnesota State Fair this year (the fair opens Thursday and goes through Labor Day, Sept. 5) are deep-fried cookie dough, chocolate-covered jalapeno peppers on a stick, and a concoction that’s been dubbed the Breakfast Lollipop, a sausage patty dipped in corn muffin batter, deep fried and served (what else?) on a stick with maple syrup on the side.

The Kill-Me-Now-With-a-Heaping-Helping-of-Cholesterol award undoubtedly goes to the Wisconsin State Fair, which this year introduced… wait for it… deep-fried butter, described by the the vendors as “pure butter, deep fried with a crisp coating.” Diners can consume it solo or go for a combination platter that also includes a stick of chocolate-covered bacon and a cheeseburger sandwiched between Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

If you want the unusual, no one does it better than the Texas State Fair, where the concessionaires stage an annual food contest. One of the winning entries last year: fried beer. The Texas State Fair also brought the world such gastronomic delights as deep-fried latte, fried banana splits and chicken-fried bacon.

Calories? It’s safe to say that many of the most popular state fair foods are appallingly high in calories, fat and sodium. WebMD spoke to a nutritionist from Texas who guesstimated about 660 calories for a serving of fried macaroni and cheese and 500 calories for a slice of fried cheesecake.

Figure on 444 calories and 29 grams of fat for a deep-fried Snickers bar. As for the giant turkey leg, it clocks in at 1,136 calories and 54 grams of fat.

Why do we eat and even relish this stuff? Scientists who study these things point to a number of reasons. Fat, for instance, enhances flavor and texture and makes food taste better. Some of the appeal seems to be at least partly rooted in physiology; we often crave chocolate when we’re stressed or unhappy because it contains sugar, a source of energy.

On a deeper level, there’s evidence that consuming salt, fat and sugar actually alters the chemistry of the brain by stimulating a desire for more of the same. This then prompts us to seek out and eat the kinds of food that meet what in essence is a neurological need.

Finally, there’s the emotional component. Smell and memory have a strong, primal connection centered within the hippocampus of the brain. The whiff of hot fresh corn dogs and deep-fried cheese curds often triggers happy memories of being at state fairs past, making us want to relive those experiences all over again.

There are plenty of healthful alternatives at the state fair, of course. And although many nutritionists would probably advise against giving in to the deep-fried temptations, there seems to be a consensus that unless you’re on a restricted diet, a teensy bite or two of a deep-fried candy bar won’t be the end of the world.

I think I’ve just talked myself into trying the deep-fried cheese curds.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair

9 thoughts on “Deep-fried everything on a stick

  1. You’re missing out on the defiance aspect. People like these things because they know people like you (health/diet experts) do not approve of them.

    That doesn’t make you wrong, or bad, for pointing out how unhealthy this stuff is. People are wise to listen to you, but there is a suppressed desire to do whatever they want because people do not like being told what to do. The fair provides an outlet for this desire.

    Consider the “Epic Meal Time” videos on Youtube, and how many people enjoy them, for evidence of this attitude.

    I have, on different occasions, eaten deep-fried bacon and deep-fried Oreo cookies (Just one time each). These things tasted incredibly good and decadent and defiant, but they were once-in-a-lifetime treats. I just wanted to eat them once so I could know what it was like and have that memory. That was enough.

    Oh… bacon.

  2. I’m not a health and diet expert by any means. Mostly I just observe the scene and ask questions.

    Certainly defiance is a factor sometimes in why people eat what they do. But what really intrigues me is the biology and the extent to which it can influence behavior, often in ways we don’t realize. I actually would love to eat a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger because it sounds soooo good, and it started me wondering why, exactly, it sounds so appealing.

    There’s a widespread belief that we can all simply choose to eat broccoli rather than fried cheesecake but it’s more complicated than this. Why do we like and even crave these foods? Choice is only part of it, and telling people to just say no seems like an inadequate response.

    State fair food obviously takes the natural human appetite for salt, sugar and fat to an extreme, but maybe this is more a cultural phenomenon than a reflection on people’s eating habits. Most people probably do not eat this kind of food every day or even every month.

    @strife: “Cheesecake” and “health” in the same blog? Why, sure! They’re just a little farther apart on the health spectrum, that’s all. :)

  3. Definitely try the cheese curds! Best thing is they’re only available yearly at the fair, so you can’t overdose on them.

  4. My advice: go to the MN State Fair and eat your way through it. No amount of deep-fried food can ever be enough for a single glorious day at the end of summer when memories are key and calories are a non-issue.

  5. Pingback: Blog break | HealthBeat

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