If you read my last post, you’ll know that we have some new challenges in our lives. But I’ll be damned if we curl up in a ball and hide from the world.
So, despite HWSNBN’s ALS diagnosis, we set out last month on a long-planned trip to visit Sailor Boy in Italy.
Wait, you say: isn’t Sicily a part of Italy? Well, yes, politically speaking. And yes, they speak Italian and have phenomenal food and fashion sense, and horrific driving. But we learned quickly that when you are a land that has been around for 10,000 years, it takes more than a measly 162 years to make you really a new identity.
But more on the history lesson later. First, we need to get to Europe.
Months ago, before I knew we would have the ALS to consider, I decided to utilize a travel agent for the first time to get this trip planned. Enter the amazing Amanda from Pique Travel. She had everything planned: hotels, cars, tours and guides, even wheelchairs at every step of the way. We used the app Unmapped to keep tabs of all reservations and tickets, and of course utilized What’sApp to communicate with her and our European contacts.
ALS was our unofficial travel partner all the way through, and he made us nervous. He was always there in the back of our minds, slowing us down, causing anxiety as we worried about how he would try to complicate and crash the party. Thankfully, contrary to popular belief, the world is full of amazing, humans willing to go out of the way to smooth things out for us.
The minute we pulled up at MSP airport (driven by the amazing Abdulla, referred to us by friends Christie and Jim. Let me know if you need his number for your driving needs!), a wonderful airport worker jumped into action. Seeing me wrangling multiple suitcases and Rich trudging along with his walker, he declared: “You need a wheelchair!” We didn’t even get inside to ask at the Delta desk for the one reserved for us. The MSP staff took charge, chauffeuring Rich and helping me get everything to the front of the check in line. (FYI: being physically challenged DOES have its perks: we went to the front of every line in every airport in all three countries, from check in to security to boarding to customs. Nice!). After we were checked in, we were escorted through security (thank you Clear — always worth the subscription fee IMO), then had time to enjoy the PGA Lounge (courtesy of Priority Pass, a great perk we got with the Chase card — thanks for the tip, Thrifty Traveler!). We asked our escort what to do when it was time to head tot eh gate, and she assured me someone would meet us at the lounge, and they did. Our escort was going off duty, but came with a coworker to make sure we were cared for correctly. Wow: mad props.
The flight worried us: HWSNBN can’t move easily or quickly anymore. When he needed to get up to stretch or use the restroom, I walked in front of him, facing him, holding his hands to keep him safe. It felt precarious, and probably disruptive to some (it’s hard to walk steadily on a plane during the best of circumstances), but everyone resected our odd journey. Flight attendants cleared the aisles for us, and constantly asked how they could help. They also, before I could even bring it up, let me know that they had confirmed that a wheelchair would be waiting for us at the gate.
Classy, professional, caring. Thank you, Delta!
We arrived in Amsterdam unscathed, but tired. Normally I schedule flights to Europe for late in the evening, but this one was an afternoon flight. There aren’t a ton of flights daily to Catania, and we were also coordinating with Singer Girl, who was flying n from Detroit. Our flight landed a couple hours before hers, and we went to the transfer station to make sure we were all set for the next flight. The lovely woman at the KLM desk realized our luggage was not checked all the way through, so quickly fixed that — and told us to come straight to her desk when our daughter arrived so she could personally make sure hers was set as well. When we di that, the woman immediately recognized me and said “Catania!” I mean, how many travelers had she helped in the past two hours, but she still remembered us and our destination. I know I am pretty memorable, but wow: again we were impressed.
The flight was also uneventful, and we were treated with views of Mount Etna, quietly exhaling her volcanic breath as we approached.
Once again, a wheelchair was waiting for us. Unfortunately, our luggage was not. Somehow all the good efforts of the KLM transfer desk agent were in vain. I felt a bit like Etna as I dealt with the situation as best I could: breathing deeply to let off steam so I didn’t blow my top. I know HWSNBN was frustrated that he couldn’t really help. Singer Girl went out to greet our driver, Stefano, and fill him in on the delay. We had no idea where our nags were or when they would arrive, given the afore-mentioned lack of Catania flights. But we finalized the paperwork, loaded ourselves into the van, and headed, finally, to the hotel.
Sailor Boy was meeting us for dinner, and bringing along his darling Sicilian girlfriend who we had of course not yet met. I informed him of the AWOL luggage, and he assured me our hotel was in a prime shopping district. Once HWSNBN was safely ensconced and napping at the hotel, Singer Girl and I ventured out to get supplies for the next two days. I typically don’t visit any stores or restaurants on vacation that I can visit at home, but desperate times call for desperate measure, and there were an H & M and a Sephora on the same block, so off we went. We purchased some basics for all 3 of us, and headed back to quickly do what we could to tidy up before dinner.
We were staying at the Hotel Una Palace in the heart of historic Catania.
We had a small suite: spacious bedroom, bathroom, large walk through closet and small sitting area with couch. It was just the right size for spreading out and wheeling about a walker and wheelchair. The hotel had an elevator, which theoretically made it accessible for those with mobility issues, but man those European shower/tub combos are a bear when someone is unsteady on their feet and can’t easily bend their legs! But we managed!
We supposedly had reservations at the stunning rooftop restaurant, Etnea. However, when Sailor Boy and the Lovely Lisa checked in for us, the restaurant couldn’t find our reservation. Exasperated, I sent them Sailor Boy the confirmation email. He texted me shortly afterwards.
“HAHAHA. Mom. That’s in Turin. I don’t think we can make that reservation, it’s a good 3 hour flight.”
They were able to fit us in — although an hour later than we planned, because Sicilian restaurants rarely open for dinner before 8pm. So we made do with snacks and the best damn tasting cocktail I have ever freaking had. Dinner was great. We all laughed, and were so happy to finally be together. Lovely Lisa was as charming as Sailor Boy is goofy. She was nervous meeting us, which is silly, but I understood. She hit it off (I think!) with all of us.
After dinner, it was more than time for bed. HWSNBN and I crashed at the hotel, while Singer Girl was staying at her brother’s apartment. We said goodnight, eager to see each other again in the morning to begin our Sicilian experience in earnest (and in newly purchased clothing…but I digress…).
HOtels in Europe do the free breakfast thing waaaay better in the states. I popped down in the AM and brought up a plate for HWSNBN. Here’s a really underwhelming pic of the buffet, which had cakes, pastries, meats, cheeses, fruits, veg and more.
After breakfast, we met Mario, who was to be our guide (and friend) for the next few days. We were doing a walking tour of Catania. We met the kids at a café, where Mario plied them with espresso and arancini, the amazing fried rice balls native to the area, as they had not been privy to the luxurious hotel fare. Fortified, we set off.
So about that history lesson! Sicily has been inhabited for 10,000 years, and, during that time, has been settled or ruled by many dynasties, including the Greeks, Romans and Bourbons. All over you see the influence of these cultures and all the others around the Mediterranean. The Turks were in charge for awhile, and during the Muslim rule of the 9th through 11th centuries, Catania became known as the city of the elephant. Why? There is a black lava stone elephant fountain (topped with an Egyptian obelisk) in the main square. U Liotru, as it is called, is the city’s symbol. Was there an elephant on the island? Maybe!
The island’s buildings and layout are absolutely colored by not only the cultural diversity, but by the geological history. Catania is known as the black city, as the oldest roads and buildings are made from lava stone (thanks, Etna). But thanks to massive earthquakes and WWII, the cities are varied, making them a fascinating architectural study (many buildings were constructed not only on top of old foundations, but from the ruins of the ones that preceded them).
Italians take their Christian holidays pretty seriously. Sicily is famous for its creches, or manger scenes. This one inside Sant ‘Agatha of Sicily, who was born in Catania, was stunning — and about 10 feet long!
There are certain things I always take pictures of on holiday: markets, doorways and side streets. This trip was no different. Mario led us to a stunning food market, where we feasted with all our senses.
Oh: and I also have a thing for funky vehicles…
The fod market was an appetizer course: we had local pistachios and nut brittles, and Sailor Boy had oysters right there on the street.
Then Mario directed us down this charming street…
…then directed us to wait in front of a shop. Singer Girl took the opportunity to make a local feline friend…
…and Mario worked his magic. As we watched, a flurry of people swarmed out of the shop, and set up little tables and chairs for us. They set the tables, and invited us to sit. nest thing we knew we were eating cheeses and meats, hand picked by Mario, and drinking wine, as we watched the world go by. One of my favorite trip moment, as a humble alleyway became OUR personal restaurant.
Then we wandered further through Catania, back through the square and past our hotel. The main street was bustling with shoppers. We looked in windows, but we were so happy to be outside in the sunshine we didn’t want to stop. A running joke began that day: the Sicilians thought we were crazy. While we reveled in temps in the 60s, they bundled up in scarves, coats and gloves. At one point, someone yelled to a tank-top clad Singer Girl “where are you from?!” We enjoyed stressing Mario out by our lack of winter garb!
Our last stop on the tour was at Savia, where Mario treated us to more arancini and pastries — and wine, of course. Mario had “American prosecco”: Coca Cola.
We said goodbye to Mario for the day, the kids headed back to Sailor Boy’s abode, and HWSNBN and I went to the hotel to nap — and see if our luggage had arrived. No such luck. I logged into the website provided me by the Catania airport, but it was all in Italian. I decided to go to Twitter to get answers. I described our plight, mentioning my husband’s medical condition and the fat tat we were in town visiting our military-serving son. KLM responded less than 4 minutes later! Within 30 minutes we learned our luggage had boarded a flight to Rome the previous day by mistake, and would be arriving at our hotel within a few hours! Such great news — and great customer service!
When it arrived, I unpacked and we got to shower and do all the things you take for granted when you have your luggage, lol. We decided to walk to the restaurant for dinner, rather than make the kids try and pick us up (it was tough to do so, as no private cars were allowed on the street front of the hotel). It was drizzly, so my hair was a mess by the time we got there, but it was a riot, navigating cobble stone streets in a wheelchair. I burned off all the days treats for sure, and we joked that it is not a vacation until HWSNBN and I get lost on a “Bataan death march,” as my family likes to call my happy meanderings.
That night we ate at one of Sailor Boy’s favorite Michelin star restaurants, Km0.
We had a dreadful time…
Singer Girl decided to crash on our couch that night, as Sailor Boy and Lisa had plans with her friends, and he wasn’t going on the tour with us the next morning (she also wanted to check out the hotel breakfast buffet!). We said our goodbyes, and went back to crash, and dream about what visual and gustatorial delights awaited us in the morning!
I just wanted to give my fam a shout out for a stellar Mother’s Day.
Typically we brunch at a local restaurant with another family. It’s always fun, but the day can be a bit of a let down other than that. I sometimes finagle a walk out of my crew, who do so grudgingly. Sometimes there is a card from someone and usually flowers from my husband. But this year felt really special.
I was worried about it, as, while I am a mom, I am a daughter first, and we were throwing quarantine caution to the wind by inviting my Mamacita to join us. I sent my husband a takeout suggestion several days in advance. I said that I was willing to help, as i wanted to make sure her day was special. She had been basically alone for months, and I felt she needed a special day more than I did.
Unfortunately, HWSNBN wanted too long and was unable to get a dinner reservation from my fist choice. But he assured me it would be handled, and got frankly irritated when I again voiced my willingness to help. So, I dropped it.
The night before, he started cooking!
I am a sucker for a great breakfast, but I am super challenging at restaurants as I hate eggs. So he did his research and started prepping food on Saturday (and it smelled so good!).
Breakfast was not in bed, as I got up first, but it was served on the couch while I watched Bravo shows without his complaints. He made an amazing sauteed potato and peppers dish and made a croissant mini=cupcake of sorts stuffed with cheddar cheese and Serrano ham. Fresh fruit and a blueberry muffin rounded out the spread! Unfortunately, I polished off the potatoes before I could grab a pic, but I swear they were there!
For the next several hours, he cleaned the house, while I read, watched Tiger King (again, with no snide comments from the peanut gallery), and blogged. Singer Girl got busy in the kitchen, making an amazing cake from scratch. It featured Earl Gray tea and blackberries — wow!
We all got dressed in real clothes — like buttons on the pants, accessories, and even an underwire bra. Well, for me. I didn’t ask about my husband.
There were two family Zoom calls that day, which was awesome. First up was with his family, and it was so great seeing each other and chatting. I really think we need to continue these after the world goes back to normal. It has been great to laugh!
At some point in the day, a dozen white roses landed on the table for me.
When Mom came over, she and I logged onto a Zoom call with my brother and his wife. Again: shelter in place has been a great inspiration for family connectedness! We told stories and remembered things and chatted about what we hoped we would do in the week ahead. We try to do a Zoom every Friday evening, and I love it.
HWSNBN had picked up a terrific dinner from Ike’s and he was setting that up while we talked. Meanwhile, he supplied us with fancy cocktails made of raspberry Gelato and champagne!
After the call we gorged ourselves, then my mom pulled out photo album she’d brought over and she and I sat with Singer Girl and looked at pics from the past 60 years. she also had a few older things — her wedding announcement in the paper, photos of my grandparents from WW2, and even a photo of my Great-Great-Great grandfather who served as a chaplain for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
She knows I love history and genealogy, and it was wonderful sharing these memories with my daughter!
Of course, Sailor Boy is on a ship in an ocean somewhere, so he couldn’t be with us. But he called from the aircraft carrier, and we all were able to say hi to him before he was cut off. He also sent me chocolate covered strawberries from Shari’s Berries (his go-to!), so I knew he was thinking of me. There were no other cards or paper wrapped gifts for me, but somehow I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.
After Mom went home, Singer Girl declared I got to pick the movie that night. I chose wisely — Terms of Endearment. HWSNBN groaned, but I knew there would be no arguing. So the day ended with an ugly cry.
I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
I hope you all had wonderful Mother’s Day — whether you were being celebrated, or doing the celebrating! Now I have to work on Father’s Day…
OK, folks, you asked for it. The write up from the annual food pilgrimage known as the Minnesota State Fair.
Every year I make a plan, and every year I think I get better at it. This time, I made a group chat for everyone in our group and linked the list of the new fair foods. Then asked them for what THEY really wanted to try. Then, I read through sooo many food reviews to solidify my top choices. Then came THE MAP.
I printed out a black and white map of the fairgrounds and divided into 6 color-coded food zones. then I listed every food we were interested in trying, and figure out which zone they were in.
It worked great. As we waddled through the fair, I would declare: we are entering the “green zone. The following foods are in this area!” Then we would all decide which enticed us the most and set off in search of those things.
Before I start off, let me preface this by saying I did not eat all of everything. In fact, some things I never even tried. It was, and always is, a group endeavor. I usually have one-three bites of an item, depending on if I love it or not. Our crew:
Here is what we ate, in order, and what we thought of what we consumed:
Nashville Hot Chicken on a stick, from the Blue Barn:
I loved it but was surprised at how sweet it was. I would’ve liked more heat (it was more Minneapolis than Nashville, TBH). In our group, most thought that while the crunch was great, it was too sweet.
While I was getting that, others in our group split off for Bang Bang chicken tenders at Lulu’s Public House — Joey D declared them the second best food of the day (no picture — the crew was not yet in the zone of pics before eating!). Miranda stopped at Nordica Waffles. She chose their All-Day breakfast waffle, redolent with egg, bacon and cheddar cheese. Delish in her book! No one tried the new offerings — I was surprised by that.
Next came a must-have: pickles. Lucy always gets the big pickle on a stick, while the rest of us devour deep-fried pickles with ranch dressing.
For a few years we’ve been meaning to stop by the Hideaway Speakeasy at the Grandstand, and we finally made it there to try the Pomegranate Bubbly Mojito. YUM! I could have that any day! And the Boozy Berry and ‘Barb Trifle rocked as well.
Meanwhile, the younger set skipped over to Rainbow Ice Cream to get a Halo Cone and a Rainbow Cloud Roll:
As floofy and sweet and decadent and delightful as you would want them to be!
Outside the Gradtasnd we stopped by Juanita’s Fajitas to try the Cuban Fusian Fajita. Meh. It takes like a poor man’s Cubano, with a touch too much mustard.
After a not -on-the-list stop for Spam Curds (Why?)
We hit another must-have every year.
BIG. FAT. BACON.
They have upped their topping game, with sprinkles and potato chips and all sorts of naughty goodness. The kids stuck with chocolate sauce, while I hit the orange chipotle sauce. I could swim in that stuff.
Next we went up to the new north end, where we grabbed some adult beverages and tried the Tailspin at the Hangar: pulled pork, corn, coleslaw with cheese and BBQ sauce. It was good, but nothing to rave about.
The next stop was at Brim, for one of the most talked about items by all the food reviews: the Grilled Sota Sandwich. Basically, it’s a fancy, grilled PB and J. I loved the blueberry marmalade, and the Irish soda bread was great, but frankly: I hate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We bought two of these because we were sure we would devour them. In fact, we ended up throwing part of them away. I don’t know: maybe it felt too school lunchy for a group with 5 kids not ready for summer to end?
Also from Brim: the Joey Mary, an iced coffee slushie with a skewer of baked goods. I didn’t have any, but others declared it good.
Next up was Giggles, where the lines are always long because there is always something nummy to try. I LOVED the duck dummies! (we did have a minor moment when one of the teens didn’t realize she had been eating duck and had a bit f a freakout. Whoops). Super crispy, juicy and not gamey at all!
We washed it down with the only new beer I wanted to try: the Third Street Toasted Pumpkin Seed ale, which was tastily toasty. Plus, of course, we had to have the Excelsior S’Mores Beer!
Next stop: Green Mill. A buy one get one coupon prompted a quick ‘za fix, but we were really there for the garlic cheese bread with marinara. That stuff was good!
No fair visit is complete without Tom Thumb mini donuts. We had 5 bags.
One of my fave food items was up next. This one was controversial — everyone was afraid: the Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake bites from Funnel Cakes. These were awesome. Doughy, cheesy, with a more tangy than spicy sauce on the side. We agreed these would be awesome after the bar food!
And can’t skip the corn!
We made our way back to the coliseum when it started to rain and tried another one of the 10 ten new foods I wanted to experience: the deep-fried Dilly Dog at Swine & Spuds. It was ok. But not exciting enough. Hard to eat: the pickle kept slipping out of the batter. These would be better if it was sliced and deep-fried as bites. Easier to eat.
The rain continued, and we needed a break. So we slipped into a bar area for drinks (try teh Snagria beer sometime at the fair!), and Mike ran out for some Fresh French Froes. We always get these — they are so good! Mike brought back a vat of ketchup and our own bottle of malt vinegar (a philosophical discussion ensued on whether or not that was stealing, and how it compared to grabbing fist fulls of Taco Bell sauce to take home. See: we can think as well as eat!).
The rain stopped, so we headed over to Mancini’s, where I wanted to try the red wine gelato. That was great! Rich had been craving sausage, so we grabbed one on a stick, too. A little spicy for him, but the rest of us liked it!
Last year one of my absolute fac=vorites was the grilled peaches with goat cheese at the Produce Exchange, so Frankie, who missed the fair last year, wanted to give it a whirl. Sooo good. We also tried the new “lemonade apple.” Tasted like an apple. Not worth $3.
Two offerings at Hot Indian Foods at the International Market Place were on my list, but i knew not everyone was into Indian food. So I chose the Bhel Puri, typical Indian street food with grains and veggies and spices. Delicious and so different. Not true fair food (I mean, it was pretty healthy), but worth trying (I do kinda wish I had tried the Kentikka Fried Chicken sliders instead).
A stroll to the dairy building got us trying, for the first time, the famous ice cream there. Dayum. We will be back.
Then we found the BEST VENDOR AT THE FAIR!
We tried all three foods and omigosh. Fantastic. I don’t do eggs, but everyone who had that sandwich said it was arguably the best thing at the fair. The blueberry key lime pie and the lavender lemonade were perfect, too!
We hopped over to the food building, grabbing a Twisted Sister from Sausage Sister and Me (a must have every year):
Two more food building stops netted us a mini pecan tart from Sara’s Tipsy Pies (I never asked how this was, Erika!).
After that, we wanted to try the Polis Sausage Pierogi from iPierogi, bt they were out. So Mike opted for a cabbage roll. He said it tasted just like all the baggage rolls he ate growing up: warm, filling, and bland. He had a love-hate relationship with it. I say: pass!
Last vendor of the night: RC’s BBQ. Sooo good. We tried the Jammin’ Brisket Grilled Cheese, which is something I could eat every damn day.
But even better was the Hot Hen, a mess of potato chips, pulled pork, blue cheese fondue, jalapenos and more. Perfect game food!
And with that, it was all over but visiting the midway. I hope you enjoy the fair this year! Let me know if you agree with our decisions!
The Great Minnesota Get Together is a tradition on a stick — not to be missed! It does frankly herald the end of summer, so I hesitate to chat about it already. However.
This week they announced the New State Fair Foods. And for me and my group, like many others, the fair and the food are synonymous.
And this year’s list of new foods? Some excite me, some revolt me, and some I don’t care one way or the other about. Full disclosure: I love spicy. I hate seafood. I like chocolate. I hate super sweet. So what sounds great to me may not turn on your tastes buds. But every year I plot out a gluttonous course, and our group endeavors to tackle as much food as possible, both the new and the old faves (with a few choice adult beverages thrown in). Here’s my take:
Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites (Funnel Cakes): Bite-sized funnel cake pieces infused with a blend of Parmesan, Romano and mozzarella cheeses, deep-fried and finished with a sprinkle of sharp cheddar and chives, and served with homemade Sriracha aioli dipping sauce. Ranch or garlic butter dipping sauce is also available. I love this one because it is so unique (why didn’t anyone think of this before?). I usually don’t sickly-sweet funnel cakes after a bite or two — but give me crunchy, cheesy, spicy goodness and I am yours forever.
The Top 10 I am most excited to try:
Blueberry Key Lime Pie (Farmers Union Coffee Shop): Yes, a dessert is topping my list. But it’s a dessert focussing on tart, not sweet! Blueberry Key lime filling in a graham cracker crust, topped with whipped cream and fresh blueberries. This sounds divine!
Carolina Pit-Smoked Brisket Taco (Shaghai’d Henri’s): Beef brisket pit-smoked over hickory charcoal, shredded and topped with smoked Gouda cheese, a pickled kale crunch made with kale, Brussels sprouts, carrots, radicchio, napa, and red cabbage, with a drizzle of BBQ sauce; served in a flour tortilla with tortilla chips. So many veggies, you might consider it healthy (is that allowed at the Fair?)
The Hot Hen (R’C’s BBQ): BBQ chips topped with smoked pulled buffalo chicken, blue cheese fondue, pickled jalapeños, tomatoes, green onions and blue cheese crumbles. Girl, you had me at blue cheese fondue.
Fried Tacos On-A-Stick (Taco Cat): Two stuffed tacos – one filled with green chorizo and potatoes and one filled with a vegetarian black bean and corn mix – deep-fried, topped with crumbled cheese and a drizzle of guacamole salsa and served on-a-stick. I love tacos, especially with chorizo. This one sounds awesome but has the ability to be a letdown (why do midwesterner put potatoes in tacos?). Only available Aug. 28 – Sept. 2, so get there early!
Wingwalker Donut Flight (The Hangar): An assortment of hot, deep-fried cake donut holes and three syringes with DIY fillings – Bavarian cream, chocolate custard, and Minnesota lingonberry jam. Probably sweeter than I like, but the novelty makes me want to try it!
Jamm’in Brisket Grilled Cheese (RC’s BBQ): Slow-smoked brisket, red onion jam, cheddar, and pepper jack cheeses and RC’s hot BBQ sauce. This sounds delish! From the folks bringing us the Hot Hen (remember the blue cheese?). I anticipate long lines at this stand!
Deep-Fried Dilly Dog (Swine & Spuds): Pickle stuffed with bratwurst, dipped in batter and deep-fried. Makings of a classic. Not too wild, but I bet it’s good!
Lavender Lemonade (Farmers Union): Pink lemonade made with fresh lavender leaves. Bet a shot of vodka would be delish in this! I just hope it doesn’t taste like soap
Carnitas Taco Cone (San Felipe Tacos): Carnitas with a sesame-garlic ginger sauce, cabbage, lime and queso fresco, topped with green onion and sour cream and served in a deep-fried cone-shaped tortilla. Is it Mexican? Or is it Asian? My taste buds will be the judge of that.
Feta Bites (Dino’s Gyros): Deep-fried Greek pasta dough stuffed with feta cheese, cream cheese and Dino’s Greek seasoning. Served with a creamy olive tapenade. The more I think about it, the more I think I will like this.
If I have room still:
Turkish Pizza (Blue Moon Dine-In Theater): A cracker-thin flatbread, with spicy minced beef, onion, tomato, lettuce, cucumber salad, parsley, fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon and garlic sauce, then rolled or folded. I’m intrigued.
Nordic Waffles Al Pastor variety (Nordic Waffles): Mexican-style marinated pork, pineapple, onions, cilantro and salsa verde. Sounds better than their other offering, which I mention later. I’m not usually a fan of fruit in my meat dishes, but I’d try this.
Deep Fried Cookie Dough (Kora’s Cookie Dough): deep-fried chocolate chip cookie dough topped with powdered sugar and chocolate drizzle; also serving cookie dough on-a-stick in five flavors: classic chocolate chip, Grandma’s sugar cookie, monster cookie, Reese’s peanut butter, and Oreo fudge. Highly likely we will try — one bite.
Bada Bing Sandwich (The Sandwich Shop): Italian-inspired warm flatbread sandwich with ham, salami, melted mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, fresh basil and creamy balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Again: on an ordinary day I would be all over this. But the Fair is not an ordinary day.
Duck Drummies (Giggles Campfire Grill): Duck wings coated in a batter and seasoning blend, deep-fried and served with Giggles’ own tequila lime dipping sauce. Hmmm. I like duck if it’s done well. But this might be heavy-handed. I will try it though!
Tipsy Pecan Tart (Sara’s Tipsy Pies): Pecan pie infused with Dubliner Irish Whiskey and baked in a buttery shortbread shell. Gluten-free. I don’t like whiskey or pecan pie. So there ya go.
Peaches n’ Cream Nachos (Bridgeman’s Ice Cream): A bed of cinnamon sugar pita chips with Bridgeman’s Peaches n’ Cream ice cream, peach topping, a drizzle of honey and crushed pecans, finished with whipped cream, a cherry and a dusting of cinnamon sugar. I like peaches, and I love nachos, but I just know this will hurt my teeth.
Irish Whiskey Boneless Wings (O’Gara’s): white chicken chunks, breaded, deep-fried, tossed in Irish whiskey BBQ sauce and garnished with chopped scallions. I prefer my wings with bones. Also: if this was from a different vendor I’d be more excited (although I don’t think it’s particularly creative). I haven’t loved O’Gara’s offerings in the past few years.
Snow Cap Mini Waffle Sundae (Hamline Church Dining Hall): Mini waffle topped with a scoop of Izzy’s cream cheese ice cream, warm real maple syrup and a maraschino cherry. I don’t need a dessert for breakfast — or vice versa.
Stuffed Cabbage Roll (iPierogi): Cabbage leaves wrapped around seasoned ground pork and rice, prepared with tomato sauce and served with a dinner roll. Eh.
4 Grilled Sota Sandwich (Brim): Cinnamon nut butter and Minnesota blueberry marmalade served warm on Irish soda bread. I’ve never been a PBJ girl.
Six foods made my “nope. Not having it” list:
Nordic Waffles Pebbles & Bam Bam waffle wrap (Nordic Waffles): warm Reese’s chocolate peanut butter cups and fruity cereal by Nordic Waffles. Looks like the floor after a slumber party. No thanks. Way too sweet.
Breakfast Potato Skin (The Blue Barn): Deep-fried potato skin stuffed with scrambled eggs and peppers, topped with blackened beef chislic – a South Dakota bar food staple – and drizzled with bearnaise sauce.The Blue Barn is one of my favorite places — and the first place we hit when we arrive. If this didn’t have scrambled eggs I’d be all in. I’ll probably just get a beer and their chicken and waffle cone (soooo good).
Joey Mary(Brim): An iced coffee slushie topped with a skewer of gluten-free baked goods, including a chocolate bite, honey toffee crunch and almond cookie.When I saw the name, I assumed it would be a bloody mary with an Australian twist — like kangaroo bacon. THAT I would’ve tried. But I hate iced coffee, and I hate overly sweet stuff.
Lamb T-Bone Chops (Holy Land): All-natural, 100% grass-fed grilled lamb loins seasoned with Mama Fatima’s Holy Land Marinade. I’m sure it’s yummy if you like lamb. But I don’t.
Mini Donut Latte (Anchor Coffee House): A traditional latte with house-made mini donut flavoring, whole milk and espresso topped with a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. Too sweet!
Shrimp & Grits Fritters (Funky Grits): Aged cheddar grits, gulf shrimp, onions and Creole seasoning, deep-fried and served with aioli dipping sauce. I don’t do shrimp.
We will also most certainly be making stops for something at Sausage Sisters, a piece or three of Big Fat Bacon, an order of deep fried pickles, and one (or two) servings of french fries. YUM!
We came, we saw, we ate.
I gained 3 pounds.
It was totally worth it.
Every year we look forward to the Minnesota State Fair. The Great Minnesota Get Together, as it is affectionately known, ranks consistently in the top state fairs of the country. Attendance is second only to the Texas State Fair — which runs twice as long in a state with almost five times as many people. The rides, the music, the animals, the exhibits: they all rock. Where else can you see piglets born, see no fewer than five Donald Trump versions in the scarecrow competition, haggle with smiling toothless carnies, listen to the Beach Boys and En Vogue on the same afternoon, watch dogs being spayed, or buy a hot tub?
And did I mention the food?
We kind of go there to eat.
It has become big business for the fair, and every year, months in advance, the fair starts touting the new food options. This year there were no less than 44 new foods. We did NOT try them all. But we would’ve if we could’ve!
I did my research, consulting various different news sources for their recommendations (big thank you’s to Rick Nelson of the Star Tribune and Stephanie March of MSPMag for always being the first reviews I read!) . Quite honestly, I weigh all the recommendations against one another, take in my personal preferences, and then compile my top 10 must try options (full disclosure: I won’t eat seafood of any kind, and I hate sweet beers and any kind of ciders, so those things will ever be on my list).
Then I get my handy dandy Minnesota State Fair app (if you do not have this, you need it. You can place stars on the interactive map of food/entertainment/merchandise you want to see. As you wander the fair, you see what is close to you. Game changer. Also: buy your tickets in advance at Cub — and pick up the Blue Ribbon coupon book and any ride ticket sheets. The fair can be pricey. These things help!)
So after my research, my list looked like this:
We go every year with another family, the Meldahls. Their kids are besties with ours, and their dog Monte was married to our late great Penny. They like the food as much as we do. Mike shares my love of all things spicy, Erika is a scoville scale wimp like HWSNBN (but both are up for almost anything). This year only two of their kids, Joey and Lucy, were able to come. We had no kids for the first time since we moved to Minnesota 21 years ago, It was tough. We missed tem — and having a few extra mouths with which to share the grub!
That’s how we do this: we buy one of something, and everyone gets a bite, It helps lessen the caloric load — somewhat. By the edn of the night all restraints is thrwn t othe wind, and we all start furtively darting glances around, as our personal cravings start whispering to our inner food addicts. We may end the night going rogue, but we always start off united, with a plan.
I start the day on the bus (we don’t drive. Take a shuttle. You’ll thank me), discussing my plan. Then I ask what they really want to eat, and add it to the app map. Since they revamped the west end, we always start at the Blue Barn — geographically it is the first place you reach getting off the bus. It also never disappoints.
First up: bacon and Cheese Stuffed Tots, and the Swedish Meatball Smorgas (with beers). Both were amazing, for different reasons. I have never met a potato I didn’t like. I still remember discovering the glory of potato skins at my friend’s dorm back at UC Davis in 1986. Sometimes I think she feared I hung out with her just to be close to their starchy goodness. These are like that, but fried. And the tangy smoky goodness of the bacon fat infused sour cream? Gurrl. The Smorgas were also great. Think Swedish meatballs with white gravy, sweet lingonberry sauce and tart pickle bits. I chose not to eat the bread, quite honestly. I was told it was like a Hawaiian bread. We were split on which we liked better. I went the more pedestrian route, but others moaned over the Smorgas. I recommend both!
Also eaten in the West End:
On the left you have the All-Day Breakfast Waffle from Nordic Waffles. On the right are the always good chicken tenders from Lulu’s Public House (not new, but a must have for some in the party). I only tasted the corner of the waffle, as I don’t do eggs. But it was sweet and savory at the same time, with the perfect soft and crunchy ratio. Those who ate the whole thing said it was exactly right. This is one of those things I can totally see someone trying at home. Great on-the-go meal with eggs, bacon and cheddar in a waffle sandwich! By the way: look for the goat on the roof. No idea its significance, but any goat wearing headphones is ok in my book!
The path then takes us by two oldies but goodies, on opposite sides of the spectrum: Preferred Pickle and Cream Puffs.
Hard to mess with a big ass dill pickle on a stick. I mean, it can be done, but this is a family show. And the cream puffs? Well, not my thing, but they are a fave of my better half.
We also picked up deep fried cajun pickle slices. They were amazing, but don’t go because you like spice. We had to add hot sauce to the mix to get the kick we needed.
None of these items are new, but you don’t have to be new to be a favorite. We hit up Preferred Pickle again late at night for another round of fried pickles. But since it was during the time of night when we devolved and scattered according to our own base needs, I have no photo.
We headed towards the area of the fair where there are no new foods usually on my list: the animal barns. But along the way we couldn’t resist a stop at our favorite fry place: Fresh French Fries. We shared a small cup, with sides of both ketchup and malt vinegar (my favorite). This place is the bomb dot com. There are lots of places to get french c=fries (in fact 46 fair vendors sell them), but this place will always have a warm spot in my tummy. In fact, we ate there twice. Later in the night we got the giant bucket with a handle, and we ate them down like Charles Dickens street urchins. Mind you, this was after about 6 hours of conspicuous consumption. I think we ate so furtively fast in half-assed-shame (who am I kidding? At this point we were all full moons. Nothing half about it). Or maybe we thought that if we scarfed fast enough it would count as an aerobic activity?
(this pic is from our baby helping)
A couple more side steps along the way to the next new foods: A corn dog (NEVER a Pronto pup). an ooey gooey caramel roll with a side of frosting madness, and poutine.
We split up at this point, some heading to the Miracle of Birth Center, others heading to get some Ghost Pepper concoction. I am a sucker for the animal babies, so I was torn. But my heat- loving cohorts saved me a bite.
We did not allow our spouses to try. They would have suffered. These were awesome. I only had one — and it was enough. Not for the weak of palate. One slightly injured party requested a trip to the all you can drink milk booth — a place we stop every year. This time we had three glasses before moving on, both chocolate and regular.
We made it up to the next new food on my list.
These are the General’s Tso’s Chicken Tacos at Midtown Global Market’s Taco Cat. I’ll be honest: this one wasn’t rated unanimously by all the critics, and I get it. It was yummy Chinese food in a flour tortilla. I could’ve done without the tortilla. Put it in a crisp lettuce wrap and it would’ve been better!
This. This apple. Oh my.
Go to Minnesota Apples in the Ag building. Buy this. Eat it. Swoon over the combo of sweet and tart. Start stalking your local produce aisle. This one will be BIG.
Ok: back to the unhealthy.
Sausage Sister and Me in the Food Building never disappoints. I mean NEVER. If they have a new food, we are there. We will also pick up an old favorite. The new? The Up North Puff Pastry, seen here on the left. It is a flaky concoction of pastry dough (which I would eat solo — the stretch factor is to die for) stuffed with porketta, cheese curds, dill pickle pieces and just the right amount of coarse mustard. This would be an AWESOME cold weather thing. On the right is the classic fave: the Twisted Sister on a Stick. Every year baby!
This was the only beverage on my list to try: a strawberry-basil lemonade. Granted, I wanted to add vodka, but it was a good mix of flavors. Too tart for some in the group, but I thought it was as good palate cleanser!
Onward to Thanksgiving:
This is a terrible picture of the Turducken Sausage at Giggles Campfire Grill. It tastes like a turkey had carnal relations with a bratwurst. That is a good thing, by the way. Impressive pop on the skin! Leaner than you expect from a sausage, but that’s ok. I was still glowing with greasy goodness from Sausage Sister and Me!
Detour for some old faves:
Mini Donuts. Big Fat Bacon. Foot Long Hotdog. All traditional. All must be consumed at some point.
One old, one new, from a perennial new food place: Tejas Grill. On the left you have the Beergarita, which I love. On the right, the elote, which I now covet. And which I vowed to try to replicate this weekend on the Island (blog to come). The elote is grilled corn on the cob slathered in a mixture of chile powder-spiced mayo, lime juice, cotija cheese and cilantro. Your brain tells your stomach it’s a vegetable. Your heart tells you it’s actually crack. And you will eat it until it is gone, then look like an addict, gnawing the ends of the cob and sucking on your fingers. Danger, Will Robinson.
Lots of “healthy” items on the list this year. Sort of. This one was consistently at the top of every foodies list this year. It’s the grilled peaches from the produce exchange (even if you don’t buy this, just buy one of their baby-head sized peaches. Glorious). Drizzled with honey and topped with goat cheese and mint, I turned into Gollum and called it my precious. But not everyone shared my enthusiasm, especially those who don’t like got cheese. That’s ok. HWSNBN and I decided we can totally try this at home. And we will.
We next had a very sad moment. On the top of the I wanna try it list for Mike was the Bananas Foster French Toast at the Hamline Church Dining Hall. Alas, it was only served at breakfast, and we are not morning people. I am sure it was delicious…
Mike helped me search for the next food item, which was a wild card. In the meantime, others hit Juanita’s Fajitas:
So. The one item on the list that I was most uncertain about was the Rainbow Cloud Roll from Rainbow Ice Cream, located upstairs in the Grand Stand. I’d never even been up there before, which added to the dubiousness of this dish. First they take cotton candy, and roll it out. Then you add three scoops of Superman Ice cream, and a sprinkling of Fruity Pebbles, then roll it up like a unicorn’s burrito. Then it’s rolled in more Fruity Pebbles. I was sure I would hate it I was sure it would be a sugar bomb. It was THE BOMB.
They gave me a spork, at which I scoffed. I picked that bad boy up in my hands and bit down. Holy mother of Tooth Decay. I am not sure how, but I managed to polish that sucker off with really only the help of one other person (thanks Lucy!). The others tried it, warily, and liked it, but not enough to go all in like we did. Seriously worth the weirdness.
It was now the time of night to hit the midway for rides and games of chance (I came home with an aqua dinosaur, thank you very much. We all wanted a llama though. I was gonna name mine Dolly. Think about it).
We soon hit that time I told you about: we were at capacity, but we were feral now, and baser instincts took over. There were more fries and pickles. More beer (I really didn’t count that stuff, btw. We did try the watermelon frose — frozen rose– at one point which was ok — if you liked watermelon and rose. Which I do not). A few bottles of water.
Erika craved chocolate. I wanted savory. We also needed cheese curds (no picture — but we got the jalapeno ones. It has taken me 20 years but I can finally enjoy one) to go for one who could not make the fair (hi Paige!). Erika and I found what we needed at French Meadow Bakery:
She had the chocolate mini sconuts (scones and donut holes married together) and I had the gluten-free risotto poppers with cheese and black beans. They were out of sauces for both, but we didn’t care. They were the perfect end of the fair bites.
We staggered to the buses, checking our fitbits and praying that all the steps mitigated the calories a tad. We were done, and frankly (I know, hard to believe) just feeling full. As we neared the gate, a gentleman was walking by with a bucket of the world-famous Sweet Martha’s Cookies. I don’t crave them — they are way too sweet for me. We had chatted about them on the bus ride in, and mentioned that all we needed was one bit of them to satisfy the need.
The food Gods were listening.
As we walked by the cookie man, Mike jokingly offered to take the bucket from him. We all chuckled, and we walked past him. The man called out: “Hey, want one?”
So Mike and I stepped out of the fair with one shared cookie. One last melty chocolate bite. We agreed: too sweet. But we all agreed we’d do it again — next year!