State fairs are as American as apple pie, and have been around for almost as long (the first state fair was organized in Syracuse, New York in 1841).
What’s better than spending a day watching squealing pigs run around a racetrack, viewing life-size sculptures of cows made out of butter, and whirling on thrill rides?
Indulging in the often fried and always delicious culinary curiosities that have come to define this enduring summer ritual, that’s what.
Food — its production and consumption — has always been at the heart of state fairs, but these five are taking it to the next level.
Here’s a taste of what you can find at the fairgrounds this year as we head into peak season (word to the wise: start ramping up your exercise routine now).
>> Iowa State Fair (Des Moines, August 9-19)
Earn a degree in one-handed eating by chowing down on hot bologna on a stick or fried butter on a stick, or opt for a double-bacon corn dog (a hot dog wrapped in bacon and deep fried, then dipped in batter with bacon bits and fried again) and a deep-fried cupcake.
Healthy Choice: Salad on a stick (an iceberg lettuce wedge with carrots and tomatoes served kabob style)
>> State Fair of Texas (Dallas, September 28-October 21)
Fill up on praline sweet-potato poppers, deep-fried biscuits with gravy, and fried naked tamales.
Healthy choice: Berry kabobs drizzled with chocolate
>> Minnesota State Fair (St. Paul, August 23-September 3)
Cool off with bacon ice cream, but only after you’ve tried cranberry wontons, camel burgers, walleye fish rolls, beef tongue tacos, and buttermilk scones slathered in sausage gravy.
Healthy choice: Eggplant fries with chimichurri sauce
>> The Great New York State Fair (Syracuse, August 23-September 3)
Topping the menu here is the Big Kahuna Donut Dog (a long, maple-glazed donut stuffed with a bacon-wrapped hot dog), followed by deep-fried fluff-and-banana sandwiches and deep-fried jelly beans. For a touch of Continental class, try the deep-fried lasagna.
Healthy choice: $1 baked potatoes (just hold the sour cream)
>>Wisconsin State Fair (Milwaukee, August 2-12)
Bite into chocolate-covered mozzarella sticks sprinkled with sea salt or deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Slurp apple cider floats and craft beer and ice cream floats. On-a-stick options include spaghetti and meatballs, Reubens, and stuffed fish. For dessert there’s chocolate-covered licorice and deep-fried Twinkies.
Healthy Choice: Wisconsin apples and fruit smoothies
Susan O’Keefe is an editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her story on Twitter @sokeefetrav.