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Minnesota fair food not just deep fried

Jayden Johnson, 10, eats one of his favorite Minnesota State Fair foods, roasted corn. The booth that sells Minnesota corn is a fair tradition for many. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. -- Jayden Johnson sat on a park bench eating one of his favorite Minnesota State Fair foods in 96-degree heat.

It was not something dipped in batter and deep-fat fried or even, on one of the hottest fair days ever, a cold milkshake. It was not his favorite fair food, which is a giant pickle.

The 10-year-old Apple Valley boy was burying his teeth in Minnesota-grown sweet corn picked the day before and just cooked in the Corn Roast booth.

His sister, 7-year-old Lydia, approached her corn on the cob more daintily than her older brother, but had just as much enthusiasm: "I could eat it every day."

Brad Ribar is happy to hear fair-goers say such things. He has owned the Corn Roast, which in an average year sells 180,000 ears of corn. This year, with the extreme heat, he said that he will not get near his 200,000 record when the fair ends on Labor Day.

Ribar is one of many food vendors at the fair and other events who rely on Minnesota grown or produced products, many of which have little to do with fried food on a stick.

He sells food at 35 fairs and other events, but Ribar saves sweet corn for "The Great Minnesota Get-Together," and has for 29 years.

Ribar's corn from near Monticello is one of variety of products raised or produced in Minnesota and sold at the fair, food such as Spam meat products, wine, wild rice, turkey, milkshakes, lamb, apples and beer.

Bartender Bud Weingart at Giggles Campfire Grill said a lot of fair visitors ask about Minnesota-brewed beer, which is served alongside national brands such as Coors.

Tim "Giggles" Weiss said his North Woods fair booth sells 30 craft beers, mostly Minnesota made, and for the first year wine from Cannon River Winery.

It is not a good year to judge the success of sales because the extreme heat in the middle of the fair dramatically cut into attendance, but his feeling is the new drinks "have been very well received."

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis was disappointed to find out that Weiss has to buy walleye for his most popular dishes from Canada because there is no Minnesota supplier who can provide him with enough of the fish. However, Giggles' Minnesota-grown wild rice likely will become a fair tradition for Lee and Carolyn Halbur of Maple Grove, former Moorhead residents.

Giggles' new log pavilion attracted the family. "We were looking for some shade," Carolyn Halbur said.

The wild rice will bring them back, she added.

Vendors are at the fair to make money, but many see education as another significant goal.

Paul Shuster of Forestedge Winery of Laporte in north central Minnesota said that the businesses that make up Minnesota Wine Country have gained lots of exposure at a 2-year-old booth.

"Just the exposure sometimes is worth the work," Shuster said. "The more people have a chance to be exposed ... the better."

Shuster, whose winery is in the top 10 sales of the state's 50 facilities, is the exception to the rule that wineries should produce at least most of their wines with grapes.

He uses rhubarb (from an 80-year-old stalk), strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and other fruits, but no grapes. The fair gives him a chance to expose Minnesotans to those types of wines.

"By and large, if people have an open mind ... and if they try our wines, they are pleased by what they taste," Shuster said.

Early in August, Steve Lott of Big River Pizza pleased Farmfest visitors with a new food to the annual event.

Unlike most pizza places, most ingredients Lott uses are locally produced.

"It's an easy find because I go to farmers' markets," he said.

Toppings change depending on what vegetables and other foods are in season.

Lott is picky. "I have loyalty (to the best vegetable sellers) because I have to put the best produce on my pizza."

Big River does not have a regular state fair presence, yet, but was part of the Minnesota Cooks presentation at the fair.

Lott illustrates a problem with trying to get things local. While he makes his own dough, he has not found locally produced flour that works for him.

Fair vendors find the same issue with things such as cheese, especially cheese curds, which often come from Ellsworth, Wis. However, some French fries come from Big Lake, Minn., potatoes. And much of meat in Spam is produced in southern Minnesota.

Finding local sweet corn is not a problem for Ribar, who is on only his second supplier in 29 years.

His farmer knows the type of corn he needs: sweet, but able handle roasters' heat.

Whatever the secret, the $3-per-cob food has its loyal customers.

Andrew Poole and Lindsay Egge of Richfield admitted they like deep-fried foods, but corn is high on their must-eat list.

"Tradition," Poole explained.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.