Iowa State Fair
August 13 to 23; Des Moines; iowastatefair.org
Iowans don't take their food lightly: One of the most popular attractions at the state fair is a veritable Madame Tussauds of dairy, featuring giant butter sculptures of Elvis Presley, Tiger Woods and Harry Potter. And another favorite is the prize hog, weighing in at a whopping 1,257 pounds. But fairgoers have been begging for something light to pair with the 6,000 pork chops they eat daily during the event. Last year, along with several other healthful options, fair organizers introduced salad on a stick. It's about as light a dish as you can eat, at least until you smother it with dressing.
Minnesota State Fair
August 27 to September 7; St. Paul; mnstatefair.org
Teddy Roosevelt famously said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick..." at the Minnesota State Fair more than 100 years ago. He was talking about foreign policy, but today, any reference to a big stick would most likely involve something breaded and fried: The Minnesota fair has one of the widest varieties of food on a stick in the country—more than 60 options. Deep-fried Reuben dogs and spaghetti-and-meatball balls are the crowd-pleasers, but one of the best bites of Minnesota flavor is the locally caught walleye. The state fish is mild, flaky and just meant to be dipped in batter, fried and dunked in tartar sauce.
Illinois State Fair
August 14 to 23; Springfield; illinoisstatefair.org
Food lovers get to live out their competitive-eating dreams at this snack-obsessed state fair. Last year, daredevils faced off in outrageous contests like bobbing for bubble gum in mayonnaise and eating powdered doughnuts without licking their lips. And amateur cooks competed to design the best breakfast on a stick, proof that the fair puts a lot of stock in portable bites. Although a slice of pizza is already one of the great handheld meals, the geniuses here have improved on the form, bundling sauce, toppings and cheese into a handy little pouch.
State Fair of Texas
September 25 to October 18; Dallas; bigtex.com
Everything is, in fact, bigger in Texas, including the state fair: Three million people visit the 277-acre Fair Park each year to ride North America's highest Ferris wheel (212 feet); wave to the tallest mascot, 52-foot talking cowboy Big Tex; and sample a massive selection of treats, including deep-fried cookie dough and banana splits. The fair has been known for its fried innovations since the corn dog was introduced there in the 1940s, and concessionaires compete each year to come up with the best new concoctions. One of the showstoppers at last year's Big Tex Choice Awards was this chocolate-covered strawberry waffle ball.
New Jersey State Fair
July 31 to August 9; Augusta; newjerseystatefair.org
Most people forget why New Jersey is called the Garden State, until they drive through lush rural areas like Augusta, home to one of two state fairs. Unlike the raucous Meadowlands State Fair, held earlier in the summer at Giants Stadium, the New Jersey State Fair is good old-fashioned fun, in the form of horse shows, honeybee exhibits, a farmers' market, and aisles and aisles of fried food, including the ever-popular fried Snickers. Sure, these are now a universal carnival staple, but here the candy bars are locally grown: They're made at the Mars plant in Hackettstown, just 20 miles away.
Photographs by Levi Brown