Living in New York City, state fairs and their peculiar combination of agriculture, junk food, and educational features are probably not on everyone’s mind. But believe it or not, New York’s was first in the nation, founded in 1841, establishing a model for all state fairs that followed. Ours is scarcely more than four hours away by car, and also easily reachable by train or bus, and features not only food and educational exhibits, but concerts on two stages (with free shows by Nelly, Third Eye Blind, Melissa Etheridge, and Sheena Easton in the coming days), carnival rides, unexpected exhibits (with one gallery devoted to dozens of miniature circus models), and even an opportunity to get vaccinated or tested for COVID. Still, food probably remains its most enticing aspect.
The fair’s permanent home is the Syracuse suburb of Geddes, where it occupies a 375-acre campus, and runs for 18 days in August and September (this year, it extends from Friday, August 20 through Monday, September 6). Last year, the fair was cancelled because of the pandemic, but this year, the show goes on. So far, the attendance has been considerably smaller, which is good news for attendees, because you can wear a mask, easily avoid crowds, and feel fairly safe.
This isn’t my first state fair. As a kid, I spent countless summer days on the fairgrounds in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Texas chewing on corn dogs, but I had never visited New York’s until this year, and jumped at the chance. I was surprised to find that admission was only $3 per day (kids 12 and under and senior citizens are free), with parking an additional $5. Both admission and parking tickets may be purchased in advance.
Go for the Dairy
Once you get through Gate 1 and pass under the ceremonial arch (see map here), you’re faced with a campus of stern-looking buildings that would do a mid-size university proud. I was overwhelmed by the number and range of food choices in kiosks, stalls inside buildings, and free-standing temporary restaurants. In the past, there were approximately 600 such dining opportunities, but that number has shrunk this year by 10 percent. And much of the food isn’t a burn, either — in line with the low admission price, some things are laughably inexpensive, and even the costliest dishes are affordable by New York City standards.
First for the laughably inexpensive. The best deal of the fair is found at the Dairy Products Building (DPB). There, at the Milk Bar, an 8-ounce glass of milk costs only 25 cents. Pick the chocolate, which is smooth, not at all gritty, and super chocolatey. But leave your mask on for a few more moments before you go outside and drink it, and head over to the butter sculpture in its glass-walled refrigerator. This year, it depicts school kids made entirely of butter whooping it up while eating lunch, with a butter laptop open in front of them.
Also in the DPB is a stall selling the notorious hot beef sundae ($7), which consists of a scoop of very buttery mashed potatoes topped with pot roast, grated cheese, and sour cream, garnished with a grape tomato — not a bad meal but note that, unsurprisingly, most of the ingredients feature dairy. If you’re looking to cool down, the best ice cream bargain is on a grassy mall just east of the Midway known as Central Park. There, from a trailer called the Double Dipper, a tiny and especially delicious soft-serve cone is $1.
The litany of dairy-driven deals continues a few blocks away at the Horticulture Building, where a booth featuring New York State apples paradoxically offers no apples, only pictures of apples. Opposite it lies the Great New York State Potato Booth, where a baked potato with butter, sour cream, or both runs only $1 apiece. For an extra 50 cents, broccoli, grated cheese, or bacon may be added. Tater tots are also available for $1. I recommend you get a buttered potato, eat some of the interior, and then wedge tots inside for the best stuffed potato of all time.
I spent two days at the fair, examining hundreds of dishes and gorging myself on around 20 of them. Sure, there were the obvious staples available, like corn dogs, slushies, Italian sausage sandwiches, endless slices of pizza, as well as assorted deep-fried treats like Oreos and Twinkies, and towering sandwiches with names like “bacon bomb,” containing sliced bacon, Italian sausage, cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce, and more crumbled bacon. But I avoided things that didn’t sound all that good, especially the ones involving massive calories, and favored dishes with some regional significance or simple but appealing novelty.
Regional New York Specialties
One particularly laudable cart on the street labeled Broadway was called It’s a Utica Thing, featuring specialties associated with that small city 50 miles east of Syracuse. Utica greens ($12) features escarole turned into a casserole with nuggets of prosciutto, grated pecorino, breadcrumbs, and hot cherry peppers cooked in chicken broth. The cart’s version was spectacular compared to one I’d had that same day in Utica itself driving to the fair — and one of the few instances of a vegetable appearing in a starring role here.
Also for sale was a creamy chicken pasta called riggies, a tomato pie (square pizza topped mainly with tomatoes), and a half-moon cookie, often associated with New York City, although Hemstrought’s Bakery in Utica claims to have invented it in 1920. Available for $2, it features a cakey chocolate cookie (New York City’s version is vanilla) with actual frosting rather than fondant. Damn good! A few steps away is an attraction called the Sinbad High Dive Show, which features performers dressed like pirates executing some amazing dives from a tower, with a pirate ship backdrop.
To the east and north of Central Park, traditional farm exhibits are scattered in various buildings devoted to dairy cows, goats, sheep, poultry, and other animals (including the cavy, or guinea pig, who knew?). These buildings all smell like stinky barnyards, but are under-attended and provide some fascinating insights into the current state of New York’s agriculture, such as family farms still alive with what seem like old-fashioned methods of animal husbandry.
Hits and Misses
A few more foods I particularly liked: The area known as Restaurant Row is about two dozen establishments with comfortable seating under awnings open at the sides, occasional rock cover-band performances, and pricier menus that mainly fall into the categories of barbecue, pasta, Greek gyros, and Irish bar food. In the latter category, find a splendid prime rib sandwich ($13) with lightly sauteed onions on top and horseradish on the side from Bosco’s, a pub in Geddes not far from the fair. The rib is medium-rare and meaty, and the sandwich more succulent than you might imagine, with a welcome crunch from the onions.
Another dish I’d recommend, well-known among regular fairgoers, is the pizze fritte ($5 each) at the Villa, an A-frame building that looks like it belongs in a ski resort. The dish isn’t really a pizza per se, but a snake of yeasty dough, deep-fried and heavily dredged in sugar. Yes, it’s a linear doughnut, and quite good hot out of the fat.
There were also specialties I expected but couldn’t find, including Rochester’s [correction: Syracuse’s] fabled salt potatoes; Binghamton spiedies; and the famous Cornell chicken, a recipe invented by professor Robert Baker in the late 1940s, who also supposedly invented the chicken nugget. I did try other popular items that I thought weren’t so good, including the vaunted wine slushies. The one I tried mixed apple wine with blackberry syrup, and it was truly awful. If a riesling had been used from the nearby Finger Lakes, which are often on the sweet side, it would have made a great slushy. Alcohol in its various forms is found throughout the fair, however, and you’re never far from a beer.
For the student of New York’s foodways, the fair provides insights, interesting as much for what is missing as for what is represented among its eateries. The fair’s food offerings seem mired in the 1950s, when there was probably little in the way of, for example, Middle Eastern, Thai, or Mexican food available upstate. Now every city and town I passed through on my way to the fair can boast those cuisines, and many more, so why does the fair remain so Eurocentric and seemingly unaware of the many ethnicities the state represents, emphasizing things like Italian sausages, cheeseburgers, gyros, and funnel cakes? That said, a $1 baked potato is a treat that anyone from around the world would enjoy.
- Make sure you get one of the free fold-out maps at the information building right inside the main gate.
- The fair originated in the days when summers weren’t quite so hot, and the campus has been laid out with little shade. In addition, few of the building interiors are air conditioned. Prepare for your visit by dressing lightly in shorts, short sleeves, and sandals, and definitely bring a hat and sun block.
- The fair is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, but don’t go right when it opens because lines form immediately, and it may take you half an hour to get through the security check. Instead, show up around 1 or 2 p.m. and you’ll get right in. Late afternoon is the slowest time, but the number of visitors swells around dinnertime and into the night.
- If you can, avoid bringing a backpack, purse, or other bag because you may have to wait in line for a security check instead of rolling right in.