Butter Sculptures, Pig Races, and Cheese Curds: The Magic of a Midwestern State Fair
Here's an enthusiast's guide to making the most of it.
For some, midwestern state fairs are a lot like ice skaters, in that they don’t pay them any mind outside of a week or two every four years. The difference is that instead of cheering on Olympians who jump and twirl, when coastal Americans tune into the action on the midwestern state fairground, it’s to see a presidential hopeful flip a porkchop, gawk at a butter sculpture, and assume their perch atop the soapbox in Iowa.
But the magic of the state fair transcends the spectacle of a candidate gnawing on an oversized turkey leg. Midwestern state fairs are treasure boxes — their gems are cheese curds, corn hole tournaments, and the satisfied exhaustion that only comes from a long day in the sun. There’s not a whiff of pretension in the air, which is instead heavy with the smell of frying oil and goats.
For all its humble splendor, a midwestern state fair can be an intimidating experience. With dozens of performances, enough food to feed the Green Bay Packers for half the season, and loads of animals, it’s tough to decide what to seek out. As a seasoned state fairgoer and enthusiastic midwesterner, I’ve learned some tips and tricks over the years. So check your ego (and your health consciousness) at the gates. It’s state fair season!
What to eat at midwestern state fairs
Some notable exceptions include corn on the cob and buckets of chocolate chip cookies, but there are generally three primary food groups at the state fair: food that is fried, food that comes on a stick, and dairy. It’s a heartland triumvirate for the ages.
Let’s begin with dairy, which is, aside from Abe Lincoln and extreme (occasionally fake) niceness, perhaps the region’s best export. You can eat dairy a lot of ways at a midwestern state fair. There is ice cream. There are numerous forms of cheese. There are cream puffs. On my annual sojourn to the Wisconsin fair growing up, my friends and I would see how many cups of milk — which, at the time, cost a quarter and came in flavors like coffee, strawberry, and root beer — we could drink until someone threw up. It was delightful.
Now, let’s talk about stick food. Corn dogs are the most obvious example, but there’s a whole world of portable food to engage with at the fair. In fact, if you wanted to, you could easily eat a multi-course meal on a stick at a midwestern state fair, which might just be the American dream. In Minnesota, you might kick off your feast with deep fried, hard boiled, sausage-wrapped eggs on stick. Then, for your main course, you could move onto walleye on a stick, a freshwater fish that practically swims in batter. You could then transition to a deep-fried pickle on a stick for balance. (Pickles are vegetables in this scenario.) And you could bring it all home with a slice of cheesecake on a stick for dessert. It’s all so efficient.
And, finally, fried food. There’s a whole lot of it. Fried chocolate chip cookie dough? Obviously. Fried alligator? Sure. Fried French onion soup? Why not. Anything can be battered and then bathed in a vat of hot oil if you believe.
What to do and see at midwestern state fairs
Midwestern state fairs are packed with activities for revelers of all ages. If you’re jonesing for a thrill, you can go for a spin on ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls, and giant slides. (I recommend trying those before that second helping of frozen custard.) There’s plenty of excitement for the kiddos, too, as there’s usually a separate area filled with smaller attractions and a smattering of classic fair games, like water gun races and mirror mazes.
Live music also blares across the fairgrounds throughout the festival. Tickets for performers like the Chainsmokers, Melissa Etheridge, and Weird Al — all of whom were on the roster for this year’s fairs — are sold in advance, so be sure to plan ahead. If music isn’t your jam, there are other types of shows on tap, from the demolition derby in Illinois to a hypnotist in Iowa.
Finally, visiting the farm animals is a must. There are a lot of ways to interact with livestock, whether you’re interested in petting an alpaca, seeing an award-winning show dog, or feeding a horse. The animal-related opportunities vary state-by-state, which creates a special level of excitement: At the Minnesota State Fair, you can learn a ton about how animals are born; in Michigan, you can watch full-size pigs compete in races. I milked a goat at the Illinois State Fair about 15 years ago and haven’t stopped talking about it. This is where memories are made.
Ultimately, there’s no wrong way to do the state fair. You’re there to have a good time and throw caution to the wind for a few hours, whether that be via roller coaster or deep-fried bacon. So embrace the chaos and the gluttony — it only comes once a year.