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