Minnesotans on a stick

Courtney Blanchard

Every year at the Minnesota State Fair, the infamous food-on-a-stick sensation claims a prominent Minnesota identity.

Fairgoers will have the option of more than 50 kinds of food served on a stick to peak the interests of the more than 1.5 million people who attend the fair annually, according to fair spokeswoman Brienna Schuette.

It only seems appropriate that President Teddy Roosevelt gave his famous “speak softly and carry a big stick” speech at the state fair in 1901, as vendors at the 2006 fair carry everything from ostrich on a stick to spaghetti and meatballs on a stick.

Renae Jeno, who will work at the State Fair this year at Ole and Lena’s, said she will sell hot dish on a stick.

“What’s more hand-in-hand with Minnesota than hot dish?” she said.

The $4 revamp of a Minnesota tradition won over critics at a Fargo, N.D., street fair, and Jeno took home a taster’s choice award.

The hot dish is made with half beef and half pork, Tater Tots, cornmeal batter and a creamy mushroom dipping sauce. Jeno will be joined by her business partner Charlie Connelly, working long shifts and taking chances with the weather and crowds.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” Jeno said.

Dave Westrum, who is selling wild rice corndogs this year, said he knows about long hours, too. He runs concession stands in the Midwest, selling typical fare like corndogs, footlong hotdogs and mini doughnuts.

“At the State Fair, you have to come up with a special theme,” he said of his wild rice.

The dish was created in part because “Minnesota is the No. 1 rice producer in the country,” Westrum said.

The franks, blended with beef and wild rice, are specially made for his concession stand. Westrum’s wild rice hamburgers have already made a splash at previous fairs.

The fair is still a haven for classic dishes. According to Schuette, visitors eat about 500,000 corndogs each year during the 12 days of the fair. More than 338,000 mini doughnuts are gobbled up, and cheese curd consumption can peak at up to 2.6 million curds during a fair week.

But eating all that greasy food isn’t the best thing for anyone’s diet.

Joellen Feirtag, associate professor of food safety in the department of food science and nutrition at the University, said the key to eating healthfully at the fair is moderation. With heaping portions and tons of oils, sugars and fats, that can be difficult, she said.

“When you go to the fair, save up all year,” Feirtag said of eating healthfully year-round.

She said her area of expertise, however, is food safety, of which the “state fair has an excellent track record.”

She said there’s never been a mass outbreak at the fair, and the departments of health and agriculture do great jobs with oversight. The biggest health risk usually occurs when people, especially children, bring food in the barns, exposing it to contamination.

All the food sold rakes in revenue for vendors at the fair. Dennis Larson, the license administration manager for concessions at the fair, said that last year’s sales totaled nearly $19.7 million. Beer alone accounts for an additional $3 million in sales.