The most unique state fair cook-offs

Kae Lani Palmisano

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Whether devouring strange fried delights on a stick or stuffing your face in an eating competition, the best attractions that any state fair has to offer are often food oriented. So it’s only natural that cook-offs are a much anticipated event, not just for the eaters who look forward to tasting some of the most delicious cuisine their state has to offer, but also for the cooks who have worked all year to fine tune their recipes.


Most of us think of BBQ and baking when it comes to cook-offs, but some state fairs veer off the traditional menu and give chefs a chance to flex their culinary muscles with ingredients and dishes that are deliciously bizarre – from“Goo Goo Clusters" to Spam. Here are some of the most unique state fair cook-offs.

Alaska State Fair | Seafood Showdown

Alaska is known for having some of the world’s highest quality seafood, so it’s only natural for the Alaska State Fair to host the Seafood Showdown. Home chefs and professional chefs alike compete in a three-round competition to see who can cook up the best seafood dishes. This year, chefs had to show off their skills using steamer clams, cod and shrimp.

The recipe that reigned supreme was from Jodi Anderson of Laughing Raven Catering, who took home first place after a strong cod round where she made a cod tikka masala with basmati lime cilantro rice and grilled asparagus.

Utah State Fair | Mystery Bag Cook-off

At the Utah State Fair, cooks competing in the Mystery Bag Cook-Off go in without knowing what ingredients they’re working with until the last possible moment. In a contest reminiscent of the Food Network show Iron Chef, contestants are given 1 ½ hours to prepare a dish using only the ingredients in a mystery box given to them at the beginning of the event. Contestants can either enter in teams of two or individually, if having a partner means too many cooks in the kitchen.

This year, chefs had to make a dish on the fly using pork roast, asparagus and green beans. They may not sound like hard ingredients to cook with, but thinking on your feet and making a dish right on the spot is the true challenge of this cook-off.

State Fair of Texas | The Great American SPAM Championship

The most unique state fair cook-offsPhoto courtesy of he State Fair of Texas

The State Fair of Texas has no shortage of delicious cook-offs. There’s the BBQ and Chili Challenge, the Pizza Cook-Off and the Cobbler Cook-Off, to name a few. But the most peculiar of all of the State Fair of Texas’ cook-offs is The Great American SPAM Championship. Contestants must create an original, unpublished recipe using at least one 12-ounce can of SPAM and up to 10 other ingredients. From a “SPAM-a-Roni Pizza” to a “Philly Dilly Sandwich,” winning dishes in previous years show how many creative ways there are to use SPAM.

There’s even a competition for Kids. Young chefs can enter to compete in the SPAM Kid Chef event.

Massachusetts’ The Big E | Maple Syrup Cooking Contest

The most unique state fair cook-offsPhoto courtesy of The Big E

Canada and Vermont aren’t the only places to get high-quality maple syrup. It’s a little-known fact that Massachusetts has more than 300 maple producers that produce upwards of 60,000 gallons of sweet maple syrup. To celebrate the maple industry in the great state of Massachusetts, The Big E hosts a maple syrup cooking contest where contestants show off the versatility of nature's 'brown gold.' Chefs go beyond pancakes and create original snacks and appetizers that incorporate local maple syrup.

New Mexico State Fair | Unique Foods Contest

The wide array of bizzare foods is the biggest draw at the New Mexico State Fair, where fairgoers enjoy “Graze Days” centered solely around eating as much food as you can. This is because New Mexico State Fair throws the Unique Foods Contest where food vendors compete to (you guessed it) come up with the most unique dish.

This years’ winner, Quesada NM Food, concocted an artery-clogging mozzarella stick coated in bacon green chile batter, coated in Doritos and deep fried. Naturally, like all of the best state fair foods, it’s served on a stick. Other contenders included the Cowboy Philly, a Philly cheesesteak with green chile (an iconic Southwest flavor) and a bacon-wrapped cheese bomb served with a Rice Crispy treat and chocolate drizzle.

Tennessee State Fair | Goo Goo Cluster Contest

Goo Goo Clusters are a Tennessee classic. Locals have been eating up the round, milk chocolate candy bars with marshmallow nougat, caramel and roasted peanuts since 1912. To celebrate this sweet piece of local heritage, the Tennessee State Fair host’s the Goo Goo Cluster Contest. This contest isn’t to make the best Goo Goo Cluster, but to use at least two Goo Goo Clusters in a unique and original recipe. In past years, contestants developed wildly inventive dishes like a bacon zeppole with Goo Goo Clusters, caramel and coffee bourbon sabayan, and even a Goo Goo Cluster cannoli.


Kae Lani Palmisano

About Kae Lani Palmisano

Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy Award-Winning host of WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a television show that highlights dining throughout the Philadelphia region. She also writes and hosts WHYY’s Delishtory, a digital series exploring the history of food.  As a freelance food and travel writer, she has been published in KitchenAid Stories, Resy, USA TODAY, 10Best, Roads & Kingdoms and more.  

Read more about Kae Lani Palmisano here.

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