OWATONNA — While the free shows, carnival rides, and people watching are all instant highlights of any fair, there is one element that seems to draw the out the largest crowd to the Steele County Fairgrounds.
All this week, more than 100 food vendors are set up at the Steele County Free Fair ready to delight the fairgoers with their wacky combinations of unthinkable foods from chocolate-covered bacon to alligator sausages as well as the staple fan-favorites like cheese curds and cotton candy. The new foods at the fair, however, are guaranteed to tickle taste buds and spark culinary imaginations. These foods include fresh mango strips from Mango Valley, the Old Fashioned Dutch Poffertjes, something called a Dilly Dog, and the long-awaited return of chocolate chip cookies to the fairgrounds.
The absence of cookies of the last few years hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public, so Steve Van Horn of Grandma’s Cookies is hoping that Steele County will give his new cookie stand a warm reception during fair week.
“The 2017 Florida State Fair was our first fair,” Van Horn explained, stating that he always thought of owning his own restaurant but quickly realized that a concession stand at a fair was much more feasible. “At fairs there are corn dogs on every corner and lemonade on every corner, but very few people do this.”
After a successful first fair experience, Van Horn said he knew he wanted to eventually venture up to Minnesota where he was originally from.
“When you’re a cookie stand you have to come to the cookie state,” Van Horn laughed. “Sweet Martha’s has everyone trained in at the state fair, but when I started calling around I realized that nobody was going to the county fairs.”
Van Horn said that he originally was told by someone in 2018 that the Steele County Free Fair already had a cookie stand, so he initially dismissed the idea of making his way to Owatonna. After meeting SCFF Fair Manager Scott Kozelka in Albert Lea, however, Van Horn learned that he had bad information and that Steele County would love to have him that very year.
“We had to be at the New York State Fair that week,” Van Horn said. “But I told [Kozelka] that we would definitely want to come this year.”
So on Tuesday morning, after working for six weeks straight on the fair circuit, Van Horn began making his first batch of cookies at for the Steele County Free Fair. Because of the large quantity of cookies made at a time, Van Horn said he uses a special modified recipe that accommodates the changes needed for baking such a large quantity. Importantly, however, Van Horn said they use real eggs and real butter in every single batch.
“The real butter is what keeps them soft,” Van Horn said with a smirk. “And when I say they stay soft, I mean they stay soft.”
With instant popularity at other fairs, Van Horn’s stand is set up for mass production at any given moment. With a special cookie depositor, oven, and cooling racks, Van Horn said that at their busiest the stand can bake 300 dozen cookies in a single hour.
“We’re pretty popular everywhere we go,” Van Horn said as he served his first dozen cookies to a very hungry newspaper reporter with strawberry pink hair. He then promptly went back to his baking.
The other new foods at the fair include fresh cut up mangoes tossed in seasoning and served in a cup at Mango Valley, the traditional Dutch batter treat called poffertjes that resemble small, fluffy pancakes at the Old Fashioned Poffertjes stand inside the Four Seasons, and a pickle stuffed corn dog named the “dilly dog” that includes a hot dog stuffed in a dill pickle that is battered and fried at the Mudd Pie Factory.