Why I’m Not Eating Burgers at the Oregon State Fair

Texas State Fair

Texas State Fair

I went last year, and was disappointed at the selections of foods available …. State Fairs were started as showcases for local farmers; in fact, Oregon’s was started iin 1959 by the Oregon Fruitgrowers Association. So in my humble opinion, a State Fair should highlight the best of the region, unique and/or innovative twists on local favorites.

But during my visit last year, I saw nothing beyond ordinary carny food, your hot dogs, churros, burgers(1), cotton candy, etc., etc., ad nauseum. This may well be a restriction placed on the fair by the carnival rides company (2) – maybe they get the foods concession as well. If that’s the case, the fair committee should seek a new rides company.

Oregon is blessed with abundant natural resources, and creative growers, distributors, manufacturers, chefs. One need only attend any summer event at Waterfront Park, street fair, or food cart pod to experience this.

The Oregon State Fair, if it isn’t courageous enough to go with an entirely “new plan”, might consider at least carving out a portion of the fair ground for nothing but local food carts. Why? Because the carts and their owners tend to source locally, and their excellent products give out of the area visitors to the fair a chance to sample some of Oregon’s home grown bounty, and become regular consumers of such products in the future.

The Minnesota State Fair (and Texas as well) are two fairs I have attended over the years that do a great job of showcasing local products with innovative flair. Everything from local ‘fish on a stick’, to local sausages stuffed with local produce. Or the “All the Milk You Can Drink for a Buck” booth, as Minnesota is a dairy state (as is Oregon).

Here’s a short video of Minnesota fair-goers talking about their favorite food finds. I noted with some irony that one of the most often mentioned items is an Oregon invention – the Pronto Pup!

Fair Food from Steve De Jong on Vimeo.

(1) Want to know what’s in your Oregon State Fair burger? Here’s their requirements: Hamburgers: No less than 5 patties to the pound (pre-cooked weight). No more than 20% fat, 8% water, and 4% texturized protein. Beef must be USDA approved. Served on a bun no smaller than 4 inches diameter, sesame seeds are optional. Must be cooked to 160 degrees.

(2) The Oregon Fair’s policy on food vendors is on their website, and I just read it.  A portion of the vendors ARE in fact from the carny company, with the rest being put out to bid.  So why aren’t there more local, unique, and small operators?   Probably the financial restrictions – the fair takes 22-30% of the vendor’s gross (that probably eliminates most small operators and food carts), and requires a $1,000,000 insurance policy and up-front deposit of $2500- $7,000 (which eliminates everyone else that wasn’t eliminated by the first requirement.)  There are a couple dozen other restrictions that would tend to limit innovation.  I fully understand the need to control safety and sanitation, but the Fair committee might consider easing up on some of the other points.   We have one of the most unique food cultures in the nation – let’s showcase it for the world to see and taste!

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