The first fair in the United States, in the sense that we understand the term today, was probably held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1807; it’s still going strong, as the Berkshire County Fair. America’s first state fair was held in Syracuse, New York, in 1841. It and other state and county fairs that followed were originally conceived primarily as showcases for regional agricultural products. The history of such celebrations is fascinating.
Finished food came into the equation soon after fairs began proliferating, in the form of recipe judging — best cake, best pie, etc. The first butter sculpture — a feature particularly popular in dairy states, for obvious reasons — dates from 1903.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people wander state and county fairgrounds every year — the Minnesota State Fair, for instance, hosts at least 150,000 men, women, and children every day of its 12-day run — and of course they’ve got to eat.
Traditional carnival foods, like hot dogs, hamburgers, cotton candy, and funnel cakes have always been popular, and are still inevitably available. But for decades, food purveyors at these events have been attempting to draw customers (and attention) with evermore imaginative and frequently outlandish creations.
The key terms for modern-day fair food are “deep-fried” and “on a stick.” Many fair foods, in fact, are both at the same time. And the most common ingredient seems to be bacon. Bacon-wrapped something-or-other, plunged into hot fat and skewered, is thus the ultimate example of the genre.
Fairs in the South are also great places to sample the iconic Southern foods that everyone should try.
(It should be noted that, while the foods on this list are or were served at the fairs mentioned, fair-food purveyors tend to think alike — or take inspiration from their peers — so many of these items have also found homes at other fairs around the country.)
Are these strange fair foods healthy? Almost certainly not, though they’re probably no worse than the unhealthiest item in every fast food chain in America.
And are all these deep fried, on-a-stick foods actually good to eat? That depends. Some are and some aren’t. Some are brilliant juxtapositions of flavor and texture; others are simply not a good idea. One thing is sure, though: Every one of them is fun to try.