Bite Into the Whys Behind State Fair Food

This American institution has changed a lot, but some things remain just the same

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Some of the more traditional offerings at the Iowa State Fair. This year's fair food includes deep fried cheddar bacon cheese on a stick. Flickr

Deep-fried anything. Krispy Kreme burgers. Meatloaf on a stick. It’s all part of the state fair tradition.

But the original fair-goers might be horrified. When state fairs got their start, they were strictly agricultural affairs that celebrated the bounty of the harvest, brought farm families together to learn new skills and just provided a day off. Since their beginning with the Syracuse State Fair of 1841, the Library of Congress writes that they have been a place to show off “traditional homecrafts,” giant vegetables and prime livestock. But they’re also a place for friendly competition–and nowhere is that more visible than in fair food.   

“The fairs were started as a way to bring farmers together–to compare notes,” Marla Calico of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions told Rebecca Strassberg for Thrillist. “There were competitions for everything: Cattle, sheep, swine–great!” Strassberg writes. “Let’s judge ‘em. Grains, plants, fruits, vegetables–even better.”

Although today’s state fairs might seem to have a lot to do with carnival-style attractions, that competitive spirit lives on.  “Corn dogs, fried candy bars, even locally grown roasted corn are perennial fair favorites,” writes Ria Misra for Modern Farmer, “but every year there is fierce competition among state fair chefs to come up with a new fair classic to rival the success of the old favorites.”

Deep-fried butter on a stick might not become a new staple, but it did put the Iowa State Fair in the headlines a few years ago. Here are some other fair treats you might see while celebrating the season of plenty:

Simple origins

Early fair food was as simple as roasted corn, soft drinks or candy. These things are all still around today–just turned up a few notches.

The apple means it's healthy

( Sandra Kuprion-Thomas, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)

Who could say no to a seasonal treat such as a candy apple? They were invented by a New Jersey candymaker in the early twentieth century.

Staple, transformed

Funnel cakes are a fair staple. If one is good, then two—with a burger sandwiched between—are better. This innovation comes from the Indiana State Fair.

It could be fry-ier

The deep fried foods arms race is a hallmark of state fair food culture. Take a look at this relatively conservative offering from the 2012 Louisiana State Fair: deep fried cheddar cheese.

Food fair arms race

Even desserts don’t get left out of the food fair arms race–think this is ice cream? Nope: It’s cookie dough. This is a new addition to the 2017 Minnesota State Fair.