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Favorites And Failures In Fried Food Minnesota State Fair

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tomorrow is Labor Day. You're sad. The pool is closing. You're back to the grind. Well, cheer up. If you're lucky enough to live in a state that has one, this is the time to head to the state fair. And if you've ever been to one, then you know it is the highlight of the year for fans of the fried. We're talking candy bars, corn dogs, oreos, pickles - really everything fried you can think of and a few things you probably wouldn't.

We're frankly jealous, so we thought we'd make matters even worse by calling up Rick Nelson, restaurant critic for The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, to tell us about one of the country's biggest and most delicious, the Minnesota State Fair. He's with us now from Minnesota Public Radio. Hi, Rick.

RICK NELSON: Hi.

MARTIN: I really need to know what's the strategy for this? You've been sampling all the new fried offerings since the year 2000 and writing a roundup. How do you manage it? Do you - have your cardiovascular surgeon on speed dial? What...

NELSON: (Laughter) It's kind of a deep fried free-for-all, right? I always go on the first day of the fair and make a list of all the new foods, and I walk the fairground's 320 acres and try to get it all done in a day so I can race back to the paper and write it up for the following day. Yeah.

MARTIN: So...

NELSON: This year there were 47, just to give you an idea of how many foods there were.

MARTIN: There were 47 new...

NELSON: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: ...New offerings?

NELSON: New foods, yes.

MARTIN: Wow.

NELSON: At least several hundred fried things you could probably find at the fair. And some of them are just, you know, kind of crimes against cuisine, and some of them are really kind of, you know, fun and interesting.

MARTIN: So I want to do the good, the bad and the ugly, so let's do the good. Like, what was awesome?

NELSON: Well, awesome - I mean it's kind of a binary question if you're a Minnesotan. Are you a corn dog person or are you a Pronto Pup person? These are, you know, kind of hot dogs that are speared on a stick and then dipped in either a - kind of a corn meal batter or a kind of a pancake batter, but it's kind of - one of the state fair's kind of iconic fried foods is the Pronto Pup of the corn dog.

MARTIN: And those were good?

NELSON: Oh, I mean - that's how I was - I didn't have one this year, and I feel a little bit like - I feel like maybe I should go back this week just to have a corn dog. They're that good. And mini doughnuts are huge here. I mean, they kind of started at the fair in a lot of ways, and they sell about 4 million of them a year. In fact, you go to the fairgrounds, and you can kind of just smell of the grease in the air. I always feel like after I'm there for about an hour that I just - how long is it going to be before I can take a shower?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. So you mentioned that the ice cream was phenomenal.

NELSON: Really phenomenal. One of my favorites is a lingonberry ice cream that's made especially for the fair and sold by a small stand, which kind of speaks to the Scandinavian heritage that's kind of big here in Minnesota. The Methodists which kind of - they specialize in ham loaf which is a whole other story. They also have a partnership with a St. Paul ice cream maker named Izzy's Ice Cream. And every year, they come up with a different flavor, and it's always been a favorite of mine for maybe the past four or five years.

MARTIN: So the bad.

NELSON: I don't even know where to begin. I mean like, you can start with the cheddar cheese that's been rolled in crushed Cocoa Puffs put on a stick, battered and deep fried. Why would you do that?

MARTIN: Does that exist?

NELSON: Yeah (laughter).

MARTIN: Please don't tell me - did you just make that up to frighten me or that really is something is that was...

NELSON: No. That's actually - it really is something that I've had. I don't know if it's still on the fairgrounds, but I went back and looked at some past stories. I'm like, yeah, that was a real highlight among the lows if, you know - if you want to flip that around.

Spam is very big here because, of course, Minnesota's the home of Spam. And this year, they were taking Spam that's filled with cheese - and I put cheese in quotation marks - cutting it into nuggets and battering it and deep frying it. And one was kind of interesting - a whole basket of them. I am a little iffy on that one.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for taking one for the team. That's Rick Nelson restaurant critic for The Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Rick, I'm a little hurt. I don't think I've seen a care package from you from the fair.

NELSON: Well, when I've sweated out my body weight in sodium at the gym, I'll get back to the fair and then I'll pick up a care package for you (laughter).

MARTIN: All right (laughter). Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.