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Dill Pickle Donut, Fluffy’s Hand Cut Donuts – Minnesota State Fair
The Minnesota State Fair is the largest state fair in the United States by daily attendance and the second-largest state fair in terms of total attendance, second only to Texas. Minnesotans will be quick to point out that Texas’ state fair runs for almost a month, whereas the Great Minnesota Get-Together lasts for the twelve days leading up to & including Labor Day. If you are not from Minnesota, Texas, or Iowa, I forgive you for not understanding the seriousness of these claims, as I treated this fact with a “yes, and?” for quite some time. I am here to tell you, I “yes, and?” no longer—as a newly adorned Minnesota resident (although I am still waiting on my actual driver’s license instead of a random folded up piece of paper with my name on it), I am officially all-in on the Minnesota State Fair. Did you know that 38% of Minnesotans go to the State Fair every year? That is some numbers! I was part of that percentage!
Admittedly, I am not a fair-going type—in New Jersey, I have fond childhood memories of going to a tiny little fair that took place down the street from my house at my elementary school. It took place during the fall, and when I am feeling wistful about my long-gone home, I picture the weather during those days—wearing crewneck sweatshirts and sweatpants, the lights from the swing ride casting the baseball field backstops in a purplish hue. A core memory is my grandfather winning me a stuffed frog during a carnival game—catapulting a rubber frog through the air and landing it squarely on a floating lily pad. The feat seemed impossible to grownups around me, and especially incredible to me, a six-year-old whose best effort sent the frog into the drink with a sad and unsatisfying plunk. The other main memory was that of the zeppole truck, deep frying little globs of dough to perfection and dumping some granulated sugar over top.
I could get into the intricacies of the “carnival deep fried dough” varieties, but if I am being honest, there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between these things except for the name and the rising agent. As stated in the previous newsletter, the concept stems from the Middle Eastern zalabia, which traveled across the globe (Loukoumades in Greece! Beignets in France! Oliebollen in The Netherlands! Malasadas in Portugal & later Hawaii! Zeppole in Italy!), but are essentially the same thing: dough that has been deep-fried & then typically rolled in some sort of sugar. The big difference is the rising agent of the dough: donuts are broken into two types—a yeast donut that rises through yeast (light, fluffy, think Krispy Kreme), or a cake donut that rises through baking powder and baking soda (think an old fashioned, or even a funnel cake if you’re feeling fancy). However, there is a secret third donut type, which we mostly associate with the Cajun-style beignet. These donuts are made from choux pastry, which has no rising agent, but instead relies upon a high moisture content to create steam to “puff” up the pastries. You see this in an éclair, or a churro—the chewy spongy bite, the little pockets of air almost making the cross-section look cellular, with its little membrane walls of deliciousness.
Instead of going with the nomenclature “donut holes that aren’t exactly donut holes,” or “fried dough that may or may not have a different leavening agent than what one expects”, it is technically more correct to call all these globs of deep-fried dough “fritters,” although that automatically conjures images of the apple fritter, at least here in North America. In the UK, fritters are thrown in as extras in fish and chip shops, often containing a potato, or even a lumped together scoop of mushy peas. Pakora is a fritter. Tempura is a fritter. You see the problem here.
And so, we default to just calling everything “a donut” or “like a donut”. A donut can have a hole in it, or it can be filled with jelly or cream or whatever you may desire. It can be cake, it can be yeast, it can be gigantic, it can be bitesized. However, much like the fritter, if everything is a donut, nothing is a donut.
Which brings me back to the hallowed fairgrounds in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. The State Fair is known for its experimental fair food—of course the running joke about state fairs is that they have run out of things to deep fry, although the crispy lutefisk steam bun has proven that there is still room for innovation in the “batter-and-drop-into-boiling-oil” field. Each year, the “new food and drink” list is revealed about a month before the fair opens its gates and is greeted with bewilderment and excitement. There have been significant trends throughout the years at the Minnesota State Fair—in 2015, there was a sriracha spike, whereas 2017 was the year of maple-flavored everything. Throughout its history, the Minnesota State Fair was known where you could find literally any food you could imagine on a stick, though in the mid-2000s, bowls were extremely popular. Fittingly, approximately one-in-four of the new foods each year at the fair is deep fried.
2023 has reached peak pickle. There’s the Dill Pickle Cheese Curd Taco. The “Kind of a Big Dill” Pickle Lemonade. Pickle fudge.
And, of course, the Fluffy’s Dill Pickle Donut.
Dearest readers, I did not want to eat the Dill Pickle Donut. I’m not a big pickle guy in general—sure, I like them on a cheeseburger or a fried chicken sandwich, but often I am the person in the relationship that will happily fork over my side pickle from the diner or the deli. I don’t dislike pickles—in fact, I was admittedly intrigued by the Pickle Lemonade. But this: a yeast donut with cream-cheese “icing”, pickle chips, and a dusting of dill? I truly wanted no part of it.
However, I did it to say that I did it. It’s the State Fair, after all! A time of gluttony and weird flavor combinations, and seed art of Tom Wambsgans, and massive collections of John Deere Front Mount Mowers, and pigs giving birth, and butter sculptures of Minnesota teens, and the zenith of Midwestern decadence and excellence. I got caught up in the moment. Also Tasha said she’d pay.
Goodness, friends. Where to start. The donut itself was not good. The dough was chewy and dry and lacked any flavor and depth—it had the grocery store donut flavor to it, which is to say, very bready and probably not deep fried, or deep fried at a different location and then frozen, shipped, and defrosted. I can do a wacky flavor (even a savory one) if the donut itself is of a high quality, but when you’ve lost me on the base & you’re relying entirely on the icing/toppings, that’s when we are going to run into trouble. The “cream cheese icing,” was literally just cream cheese—warmed in the late August sun. The pickles were flimsy and floppy, though probably the best part of the entire experience. The dill appeared to initially be there for decoration and give it a green pop, but it’s like the creators of this monstrosity forgot that dill is an actual flavor, and so it was a palate obliterator.
There was no sweetness to be found, which I was disappointed by—even if the donut itself was a glazed donut to start, there could be some creativity to be found here. Weird, yeah, but at least vaguely donut. Instead, this was like a six-year-old making a bagel with cream cheese for the first time. I took one bite, yelled “NOPE” out loud, Tasha took her bite, and then we tossed it in the trash.
Thankfully, this was by far the low part of my culinary escapades at the fair—undeterred by the absolute abomination that was the Dill Pickle Donut, I indulged in an iced mini donut latte at the Anchor Coffee House, which had a very cute mini Tom Thumb donut perched on the side and was flavored with a cinnamon sugar dusting and whipped cream.
Also, the fair gods (which are two anthropomorphized gophers named Fairchild and Fairborne in pork pie hats) smiled upon me, as thankfully there was a donut creation that was as good as the Dill Pickle Donut was bad—all things perfectly balanced, the Fairchild and Fairborne serving as yin and yang in this electric word life. After marveling at the first-place corn cob winners, we made our way to Peachey’s Baking Company’s truck, where they were freshly frying and glazing giant Amish-style donuts. They had two options: their traditional vanilla glazed, and something called the “Peanut Butter Cream Donut,” which I was obviously intrigued by. Being it was the State Fair, and all, I did not come this far just to come this far, and thus opted for the most extra-choice. That being said, I was still surprised when I was handed my prize: the glazed donut on a paper plate, topped with massive heaps of vanilla custard, peanut butter dust, and whipped cream. Grabbing a fork and a knife, we sat in a the increasingly hot sun and devoured the thing—it was so over the top and truly astounding—while I recognize that the super sugary Reese’s Pieces peanut butter flavor is not for everyone, it is, without a doubt my jam (get it), and so this towering pile of sugary gloop was absolutely what I needed in my soul.
Of course, I have difficulty classifying any of these fair foods as donuts—the closest being the tiny mini donut adorned on the side of my plastic iced latte cup, but even that one was split and twisted like an orange slice, the consistency more like a string of funnel cake. The Dill Pickle Donut was a donut in name only—starting with a donut base before abandoning anything that makes it anything resembling a donut. The Peanut Butter Cream Donut was a sundae that just so happened to have a donut underneath it—the donut as a vessel to hold the other (delicious!) things in place.
Perhaps this is a trade-off here; if I choose to acknowledge an incredible use of the medium, I also have to acknowledge the worst possible creation. It hardly seems fair to put the two in the same category, but this is what the Minnesota State Fair does—there are fair foods that ask and there are fair foods that answer. It is the Great Minnesota Get-Together, after all—a combining of all the things into a messy chaotic whole—with 4-H kids and art school kids alike making their way through Judson Avenue. If anything is a donut, then, to quote a fellow transplant who also made Minnesota his home, anything is possible. Until then, I will continue to try more terrors of the imagination. After all, we all have to start somewhere.