Going to the state fair is an annual tradition for many families, especially those that live near some of the largest state fairs in America. Millions embark on road trips with their families to visit the once-a-year fairground event filled with fun activities. Parents and children alike cherish memories of rural attractions like tractor displays, livestock competitions and cattle milking stations. The state fair is a trip the whole family can enjoy — and the best part is probably the food. Deep-friers and grill smoke from nearby vendors leave haze and the smell of burnt sugar hanging in the air. Every year, vendors one-up each other with wackier, more indulgent options. Nearly everything is either covered in sugar or topped with an excess of cheese. There’s pie everywhere to be found. Basically, state fairs are havens of fun-to-eat foods, best served on a stick.
The fresh-out-of-the-frier, over-the-top foods at your local state fair might leave you with some burning questions. Some questions are easy to answer. Like, why not stuff a hot dog into a Twinkie? But others seem tougher to answer. How do they deep-fry liquids, anyway? And just how many calories are in those 3-pound turkey legs? We got to the bottom of these state fair food mysteries so you don’t have to.
An Oreo is already pretty great on its own — who in their right mind would think to fry one of these sandwich cookies? The first deep-fried Oreos were invented by Charlie Boghosian, aka “The Man Who Fries Everything,” in 2002 at the Los Angeles County Fair. He fried them pretty much just for the sake of, well, frying everything. The Oreo was first dipped in pancake batter, then deep-fried, drizzled with chocolate and coated in powdered sugar. The Oreo was just one of many, many foods Boghosian fried, though it is perhaps the one with the most lasting popularity.
Cotton candy is a sugar-spun confection you can find at almost any state fair. It gets its name because of its cotton ball-like appearance and texture, which immediately dissolves into a sticky, grainy mess when you take a bite. But just how do they make it so fluffy? It’s made of pure sugar mixed with food coloring. The texture of spun sugar comes from a process of continuous heating and cooling, where heated liquid sugar is spun through tiny holes to create miniscule strings and then rapidly cooled. The result? That spidery, sweet web you all know so well. Believe it or not, cotton candy was invented by a dentist.
If you’re from the Midwest, you probably know this iconic Iowan food. But if not, wait a hot minute before you turn up your nose at the name. A hot beef sundae doesn’t involve any ice cream, though it does involve a few heaps of beef. It’s meant to mimic the look of a sundae, with mashed potato scoops as the first layer topped with hot roast beef and gravy (acting as “chocolate sauce”). The “sundae” is then topped with the Midwestern staples shredded cheddar cheese (acting as “sprinkles”) and sour cream (as “whipped cream”). The dish is finished with a cherry tomato on top. This savory dish has been served at the Iowa State Fair for ages.
Deep-fried butter is a relatively new phenomenon, invented by “Fried Jesus” Abel Gonzales Jr. at the State Fair of Texas for a competition. But just how do you fry butter when it’s a liquid at higher temperatures? Fried Jesus didn’t need a miracle to make this state fair food happen. He simply used frozen, battered balls of butter and fried them quickly enough to create an outer shell. However, the butter mostly melts into the doughy exterior once it’s fried — not that anyone’s complaining. The result is pretty much the butteriest bread you could possibly imagine. When you take a bite, it’s said that drips of butter ooze down your chin.
How do state fair vendors manage to fry substances that are liquid even at room temperature? Various liquids have all been successfully fried, including Kool Aid, Coca-Cola and even chicken noodle soup. Turns out, the method is almost the same as the method used to deep-fry butter. To deep fry a liquid, you have to freeze it first. Once you cover the frozen balls in dough and fry them, the bread mixture and liquid mesh together into something that looks like a doughnut hole. You might not know this about Kool Aid, but when you deep-fry it you get a ball of red dough, not a pocket of liquid juice.
Why yes, they do. Pig ears are really made of pigs’ ears. Of all the parts of a pig you could eat, you might be wondering why, in Minnesota and at many state fairs, they choose to eat the ears over say, pork belly or a slice of bacon. As anyone who’s ever actually had a pig ear knows, this pork product is delightfully crunchy and delicious. They’re cut to look like curly fries and fried to an absolute crisp. Some people top theirs with chipotle glaze.
Though there are always rumors that turkey legs are actually emu, those massive, smoked pieces of poultry really are 100 percent turkey. Somewhere, turkeys are being bred and sold at an absolute mostrous size; these gargantuan gobblers weigh approximately 40 to 50 pounds each when they’re slaughtered to produce those thick-thighed turkey legs. The legs themselves weigh around 1 to 3 pounds. You can find them at state fairs and at Disney. Something Disney doesn’t want you to know? Just one of those legs can clock in at over 1,000 calories.
Candy apples, not to be confused with caramel apples, are made from an apple coated with a layer of either toffee or hardened sugar candy. Though this candy could theoretically be any color, for some reason it’s always red. Well, the real reason for this specific color scheme lies in the story of this classic treat’s origin. The first candy apples were made by candy maker William W. Kolb in Newark, New Jersey. He displayed them in his window to sell around Christmastime, opting for a red-hot cinnamon candy. Ever since, candy apples have been colored and coated with red.
Butter sculptures are seen at almost every state fair and can actually be crazy impressive. But why do fairs have sculptures made of butter instead of another substance? Butter sculptures have been around for longer than you might think. In fact, Europeans were sculpting centerpieces from butter as early as 1536, when they were used as one of many decorations for the pope’s elaborate banquets. The earliest butter sculpture in the U.S. was put on display in 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It was a bust sculpture of a woman, carved by Caroline Shawk Brooks, a farmer from Arkansas. People loved it; she quickly became famous for her butter art, and is mainly credited with the art form’s odd popularity.
State fair vendors have fried some zany things: jelly beans, beer, ice cream, bubblegum… But what is the wildest idea someone’s ever created? Honestly, there’s no correct answer to this question. Every year, competitors from across the country travel to state fairs to try their luck at winning competitions for their wacky food combinations. Other deep-fried oddities have included watermelon, salsa, pieces of pie, entire burgers, scorpions and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Restaurants go through health inspections with some regularity. If a restaurant is unsafe to eat at, you’ll know from the poor rating and other telltale signs you’re at a dirty restaurant. But do health inspectors visit state fair vendors? Are they safe, or are they teeming with hidden bacteria and rodents? Well, it’s hard to say for sure. Regulations are different in every state. Many states require temporary and mobile food vendors to receive food handling certifications, but not all. Additionally, those who prepare food at state fairs may not have extensive kitchen experience. This could cause unintentional safety mistakes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can check with your local health department to inquire about whether the food stands have been inspected. But there is no universal guarantee that the food is safe.
Corn dogs and state fairs seem as inseparable as the chicken and the egg. But which came first? The state fair did, but that doesn’t mean deep-fried hot dogs on a stick were invented for a state fair, per se. A number of state fair vendors claim to have invented the corn dog in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, but they existed much earlier. The first-ever mention of a corn dog was found in a patent filed in 1927 for a “Combined Dipping, Cooking, and Article Holding Apparatus.” The patent was basically for the “on-a-stick” method of serving breaded and fried foods, and used weiners specifically as a relevant example. This patent had nothing to do with state fairs, though state fairs were already happening by 1927. Corn dogs got their name thanks to the “Krusty Korn Dog” baker machine sold as a restaurant appliance in 1929. The machine made mealy, lumpy dogs that looked like ears of corn.
If you’ve ever tried ice cream, custard or fro-yo side by side, you know they’re far from the same. Though they’re sometimes mistaken for one another, the ingredients used to make them are actually quite different. All three frozen desserts are made primarily from dairy and sugar. Ice cream has a minimum fat requirement — anything below 10 percent fat cannot legally be referred to as “ice cream.” Therefore, ice cream is almost always made with milk and heavy cream, along with sugar, preservatives and flavoring. Custard typically also contains milk and heavy cream. The main difference between custard and ice cream is that custard requires the addition of pasteurized egg yolk. The egg yolk gives custard a unique, creamy texture. Frozen yogurt (or fro-yo) has no minimum fat requirement. Fro-yo is made with yogurt or cultured milk instead of regular dairy, and omits some or all of the heavy cream. Though fro-yo is lower in fat than ice cream and custard, it often makes up for this with extra added sugars.
Why’s the lemonade at the state fair so much tastier than any other kind? The answer, in a word, is sugar. Premade, bottled lemonade also can contain surprising amounts of sugar for a “healthy” beverage, but homemade versions you might find at a state fair likely contain even more. Each jug of homemade lemonade could be hiding cups upon cups of white, refined sugar. Fresh-squeezed lemons can also make all the difference when making lemonade — here’s how to make top-notch lemonade at home.
Competitive eating has become an odd American ritual that’s withstood the test of time. Competitors have wacky (and somewhat disgusting) tricks for shoving as much food as possible into their mouths in as little time as they can. While these competitions now include everything from Nathan’s hot dogs to fresh-shucked oysters, pie eating competitions were among the first-ever events of their kind. Pie eating contests first occurred at county and state fairs, where they’re still immensely popular attractions. They became a thing in the late 1800s, probably as another way for farmers to show off their supplies of fresh fruit. By the early 1900s, pie eating contests were being held at most state fairs across the country.
All of these doughy confections can be found at state fairs, though which you’ll find is largely dependent on the region. All three are types of deep-fried dough, often coated in powdered sugar or cinnamon. What could be bad about that? Fry bread is common in the South, where it’s eaten at state fairs with powdered sugar or savory toppings, often taco ingredients. Elephant ears are mostly found in the Midwest and are nearly identical to fry bread. They’re always eaten with sweet toppings, however, typically with cinnamon, sugar and/or jam. Finally, funnel cakes are popular nationwide. Unlike fry bread and elephant ears, which are made of flattened dough that’s fried in one piece, funnel cakes aren’t flat like a pancake. They’re made by pouring batter in circular patterns before deep frying and dousing with powdered sugar. Funnel cakes got their name because this thin pour is often done through a funnel.
The first-ever state fair was held in Syracuse, New York, in 1841. It was held by the New York State Agricultural Society, an organization formed to support agriculture throughout the state. The purpose of the fair was to provide an opportunity for farmers to show off their animals and crops. The fair drew an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people and featured livestock exhibitions, produce displays, recipe showcases and competitions between farmers, such as plowing contests. The food served looked nothing like the state fair food you’d see today — rather, it likely constituted of recipes and fresh foods provided by the farmers from their yields.
No. Not every state fair is called “the [Name of State] State Fair,” but almost every state has one. 49 of the 50 states have their own state fair — and heck, even Washington, D.C., has one! Connecticut is the one state that’s left out. They do, however, have a few county fairs, and some incredible food otherwise.
Food competitions like bake-offs and chili cook-offs are common at state fairs, and each fair is proud of its own annual competitions. But what makes one qualified to accurately judge a food competition? Well, that depends on the competition. According to one user on Reddit who tried to get the gig, some state fairs collect applications and resumes before selecting judges. Others conduct social media contests to select their panel. Many state fairs simply ask locals or previous winners to return and judge the new lineup of food entries. It’s rare that a state fair judge ever has to have any special sort of certification.
You might not think of state fairs as the most lucrative location for food vendors to set up shop, since everything’s so cheap and it’s a short-term opportunity. But at the largest state fairs, vendors can make upwards of a million dollars per year! In fact, one of the vendors at the Minnesota State Fair reportedly made $4 million in sales in 2017. State fair food isn’t the only food with secrets. Here are some of the strangest mysteries behind your favorite junk foods, solved.
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