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A State Fair with no food to buy? It happened ... lots of times

It's hard to believe today, but that's how it used to be.

For some of us who go to Minnesota's State Fair every year, the No. 1 reason is the food. 

With 226 different offerings on this year's Food Finder, it's hard to imagine a time when the number was zero. No food for sale. Or drinks. Nothing.

But that's how it was. Not just at one Fair but for the first 30-some Get-Togethers.

What were they thinking?

GoMN asked the current State Fair food and beverage director, Dennis Larson, to help us understand a fair without food sales. 

He explained that in the 1800s most of the people coming to the fair were farmers. They were there to learn about the newest methods and equipment and appreciate the prize-winning livestock and produce. 

But they were not there to spend money, so lots of them became picnickers.

"People would pack a lunch and bring it," Larson said. "They were more frugal at that time and didn't have disposable income."

Another factor was that in its first few decades the State Fair moved around to a different Minnesota town every year. It settled down just north of St. Paul in 1885 but it took another 12 years before food vendors arrived at the fairgrounds. 

Hallelujah – the first food vendor

Once it had a permanent location, some of the Fair's neighbors recognized a way they could help people and raise some money.

Women at a nearby church – Hamline United Methodist – heard that State Fair workers were so busy they weren't able to get away for lunch. So in August of 1897 these church ladies fixed up some sandwiches and pots of coffee and brought them to the fairgrounds, Teresa Renneke (who now co-chairs the church's dining hall committee) told GoMN.

Not only were the workers happy to buy the lunches, but fair visitors started asking if they could get some, too. The church expanded its food sales and realized they had tapped into a market. 

Hamline's success was no secret and other churches quickly glommed onto that same idea. Soon, instead of bringing something from home, buying a home-cooked meal from one of the many church dining halls became the way people ate at the Fair.

There were a whole lot of churches in the Twin Cities in those days and the Fair's Larson said in the early 20th Century there were as many as 90 different church diners at the Fair.

The Pup that changed everything

The State Fair has only been cancelled a handful of times. But it happened twice in a row in the 1940s, first because of the gas shortage during World War II, then because of a polio epidemic. 

When Minnesotans returned to the fairgrounds in 1947 something was different: Pronto Pups had arrived. And the Fair's food landscape would never be the same.

Jack Karnis introduced Minnesotans to the sausages dipped in corn batter and slathered with mustard (although ketchup apparently has its fans, too). 

Another important ingredient in a Pronto Pup isn't even edible. It's served on a stick, which makes it a portable food you can eat while you walk.

That very first year Karnis sold 100,000 Pronto Pups and a revolution in State Fair food was underway. 

Jack Karnis' son, Gregg, now owns the Pronto Pup franchise in Minnesota.

"We mix the batter exactly the same way we did to the measurements and liquids that we did in '47," he told MPR News last year when the total number of Pronto Pups sold at the State Fair crossed the 25 million mark.

The transition to today

Larson, the Fair's food guy, said it was the portability of the Pronto Pup that really changed things. It brought food outside of a dining hall. 

Vendors developed more choices and got innovative about offering food on the go. Ice cream, for example, was served in a cone instead of with a bowl and spoon. 

Meanwhile the number of church dining halls has dwindled to just two

Disposable income doesn't seem to be a problem for fairgoers these days. 

And while not as many of us are farmers, Larson said in a lot of ways our agricultural heritage is still what the Fair's about – noting that some of the most popular stands, like all-you-can-drink milk or the Turkey to Go booth, are run by farm groups. 

So, yes, we're now far removed from the days when people had to go hungry at the Fair unless they brought their own chow.

But if you want to bring things full circle, remember that you are still allowed to bring a picnic lunch to the State Fair.

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