After 2022’s State Fair Pickle Pizza heard round-the-state — love it or hate it, it sure generated a lot of conversation — we thought that might mark the end of our favorite sour and snappy sandwich accoutrement at the fair. Enough was enough.
But fair food innovators were like moths to a flame, and the 2023 Great Minnesota Get Together features not one, not two, but seven new foods celebrating pickles’ punchy flavor profile, from fries to tacos to lemonade. Truly, 2023 marks the pickle pinnacle for the fair.
Hype over a particular ingredient or style has happened before at the State Fair. We combed through Star Tribune records and fair documents back to 2014 to see if we could spot other trends like this.
This is, of course, an imperfect science. First, we used only the official “New Fair Foods” listed by the Fair Gods, which is slightly more limited than what Star Tribune food reporters review each August. Second, most of our categorizing came down to how a new food was marketed by the fair in a one-sentence description at the time. Surely some foods, for example, are served on a stick, but if the description didn’t say “on a stick,” there would be almost no way for us to know. We did our best.
The results were, in some cases, muddy. Have new fair foods gotten spicier, or are jalapeños just getting mentioned more often? (Hard to say.) Are we seeing fewer breakfast-centered items? (We think so.)
Here are a few trends that were clear:
Sriracha was specifically mentioned in four separate new fair foods in 2015 — deep fried with panko breading, drizzled on a dog, slipped into a slider, and as an ice cream topper (!) — and then only three times since, sometimes just in a dipping sauce. We’re seeing more mentions of other hot peppers (RIP, our Midwestern tastebuds) at the fair, but not as much of this particular condiment — blame the shortage?
On the other side of the sweet-spicy continuum, this sugary staple found its way into several new fair foods two years later, sometimes paired with its salty pal, bacon. It was added to a nitro coffee, drizzled in a breakfast bowl and over a waffle-on-a-stick, and in a churro dipping sauce. A maple-y cinnamon sugar is present this year on some sweet ravioli, but it’s the first we’ve seen in a while.
Call it the fast-casual effect. There was a notable rise and fall of new foods marketed as “bowls,” with many ingredients layered in a pile — different from a dish served in the ubiquitous cardboard boat — and their reign may have ended. Are fairgoers back to wanting handhelds rather than fork-and-knife fare?
Bacon, brats and baked goods
Some foods are closely related to one another, and we noticed there was an ebb and flow to which variation would show up year-to-year.
Bacon and sausage have each seen peaks and valleys in their new fair food popularity, often offsetting each other: when bacon is popular, sausage takes a hit and vice versa.
Bacon appears to be more popular recently, and has — overall — appeared slightly more frequently in new foods, perhaps owing to its acceptable use in both sweet and savory applications. We documented nearly a dozen desserts with bacon since 2014, but couldn’t find a single one with sausage.
Meanwhile, a flurry of baked goods appears every year, sometimes in fusion applications. Think the sconut (scone plus doughnut), a pretzel-croissant sandwich, etc.; we occasionally saw what might be classified as mini-trends. One year had a few biscuit-based sandwiches, another year featured a handful of muffins. Scones showed up a couple times. Our takeaway? We’re never far from delicious carbs at the fair.
Some things we always know we’ll find among new fair foods, of course, and it’s remarkable how consistent some of them are as a share of the total.
Approximately a quarter of new food items every year involve deep-frying some part of the dish — though it was close to 40% in 2014. Some other data shows that new fair foods are tending to have more options for a variety of dietary needs and using more vegetables, but we can’t say the two trends are connected.
Surprisingly, only about 10% of new foods are on a stick, a figure we thought would be higher. We’re guessing that other not-new fair foods tend to be stick’d (we see you, Pronto Pups), but they don’t appear to get a ton of top “new fair food” billing.
The most consistent category? Desserts. Sweet treats — everything from churros to ice cream to cannoli — accounted for about a third of official new foods every year. Sugar may be one of the most dependable things about the fair. How else will you keep your energy up all day?