The alarm blared and I jumped out of bed. Today was the day I would finally make my State Fair dream come true: enjoying the splendor of the fairgrounds before the masses descend.
Because he’s awesome, my husband accompanied me on this ridiculous adventure, which by the way happened on the first Saturday of the fair. Yep, he gave up sleeping in on a Saturday. He’s a trooper.
We took the Como exit off 280, and sailed all they way to the main parking lot. None of this gridlock, bumper-to-bumper business that I was accustomed to. We got a second row parking space so close to that you could almost taste the livestock. No line for tickets, no line for entry. Just a handful of families, freezing their butts off in their shorts and tank tops (come on guys, it’s 58 degrees!), ready to dominate the fair from dawn til dusk.
I’d never seen the fair that early, when dozens of US Foods trucks dotted the streets, 4H-ers still sleeping on cots next to their award-winning pigs (really!). One teenager, dressed in head-to-toe U of M athletic gear, was out for an early morning jog. Impressive.
The hubby and I headed straight for the Farmer’s Union, where we’d heard they had nitro iced coffee and delicious gluten-free cornbread blueberry muffins (which were allegedly good, according to a few of the local food blogs). We arrived, stepped right up to the counter and ordered. Two hours later, there’d be a 30-person long line. But not at this hour. It was just us. The cold pressed coffee was about what I’d expect at the fair: a slightly watered down version of what you’d get at a regular coffee shop, but still decent.
The blueberry muffin was a little gummy and nothing special, best suited for actually gluten-free people who are probably more forgiving about the texture of gluten-free baked goods.
Our next stop? Salem Lutheran Church’s Dining Hall, tucked away on the Fair’s far northeast corner. One of the fair’s three remaining dining halls, this one seemed the most old-school to me and actually serves food on real plates instead of Styrofoam ones. In operation since 1949, the dining hall does mean breakfast sandwiches (topped with a Swedish flag!), classic eggs/bacon/toast combos, cinnamon rolls and their claim to fame, Swedish egg coffee. Guys, it doesn’t get more Lake Wobegon than this.
We arrived just after the initial opening rush. Though there are a handful of outdoor counter seats, the husband and I queued up to sit indoors at one of a dozen or so communal tables. Within 10 minutes, two spots opened up. We took our seats and were almost immediately given coffee by a 15-year-old named Leif. An elderly couple and their daughter sat across from us. Within minutes, we basically knew their whole life story. The elderly man had just celebrated his 90th birthday. This was the 60th year he and his wife, who live in New London near Wilmar, had attended the first Saturday of the fair. "We always come here first," said the wife. "They have the best coffee. Once you try Swedish egg coffee, you’ll never want the regular stuff again." Along with their coffees, the husband ordered a sweet roll; his wife, a buttered piece of wheat toast. Buttered wheat toast! At the fair! How adorable is that?
I asked the wife if she’d every made Swedish coffee at home. "Of course!" she said. "You have to use a kettle on the stovetop. First, you beat an egg. Then, you mix it with the coffee grounds. Then, you fill the kettle up with water. I always do very cold water. Once you bring it to a boil, you let the kettle sit. You have to wait for everything to settle, otherwise you’ll get a cup full of coffee grounds. It’s the smoothest cup of coffee you’ll ever drink." I told her I’d have to try this at home. "Well, be careful," she warned. "All you young kids have those automatic coffee machines. You have to get a proper kettle for Swedish egg coffee. Otherwise, you’ll make a mess."
Our breakfasts arrived: mine, an egg over medium (fun fact: the fair doesn’t allow over-easy eggs) bacon and toast. The hubby ordered the egg-sausage-cheese breakfast sandwich. Mine was good, but his was better. Shortly thereafter, Leif brought our bill: $16.00. We bid our new friends adieu and settled our tab at the register.
There were a few more activities on our early morning to-do list: try the cinnaminnies form Cinnesmith’s (not as good as I remember; I still maintain the only two sugar items worth eating at the fair are Tom Thumb mini doughnuts and Sweet Martha’s Cookies), buzz through the Eco experience (which didn’t open until 9 A.M.) and Miracle of Birth (also not open until 9 A.M.). One of the only drawbacks to arriving so early: the animals and staff aren’t necessarily up and at ‘em.
The Saturday crowd started filling the streets. By noon, things were in full swing. That was okay with us—we’d already been there nearly six blissful hours! As the throngs waited to get into the fair, we breezed out.
On our way home, I thought about how the State Fair is billed as "The Great Minnesota Get-together." But really, when I think of previous fair experiences, it’s been more of a "Great Minnesota Milling Around while Shoveling Something on a Stick into Your Face while Playing a Game of Fun—but Totally Mean Spirited—State Fair Bingo." These days, we go to the fair for the gimmicky foods and the people watching. That’s not really a get-together.
While we waited in line for seats in the Salem Lutheran Church Dining Hall, I overheard the guy manning the door say something to the effect of "back in the day, there used to be a line stretching all the way down the block." Sure, there was a line when we arrived, but certainly nothing crazy. Maybe 20 or so people?
I am all about embracing the new stuff at the fair. Though I am still annoyed that they got rid of Heritage Square, I do think the Blue Barn does some of the best new foods at the fair. And big shout out to the Produce Exchange (which took over for what used to be, in my opinion, the worst booth of all: Deli Express which sold pre-made, pre-packed gas station sandwiches!) who is now selling five kinds of kombucha on tap, delicious peaches and other non-fried goodies.
However, I feel like a lot of food at the fair has become a competition for gimmicky one-uppers. Take a regular food, top it with candied bacon, throw it on a stick. Who cares if it’s delicious so long as every local food writer writes a blurb about it? So in addition to focusing on the latest and greatest fair food, maybe we all need to give some love to the places that have made this Minnesota experience so special.
Maybe that’s why I liked this early morning fair adventure: it allowed me to sit down and actually get together with my fellow Minnesotans, sharing food and coffee made with integrity, the same way they’ve been doing it for 66-years.
-by Molly Mogren