Editor's note: You may have seen Grav Weldon's name on Serious Eats before; he takes most of the photos for our Arkansas correspondent Kat Robinson. Today he shares some snapshots from a recent cruise that brought him to Alaska. And you can't be in Alaska during state fair weekend and not scope out the giant produce.
When it comes to state fairs, you've probably heard of three: Texas, Minnesota, and whatever state or province you happen to live in. Everyone thinks of Texas and Minnesota both because of their massive scale and wide selection of strange fair foods.
But the true purpose of state fairs often gets muted by the sights and sounds of the midway. No, not the pony rides—I'm talking about the livestock and produce competitions, and this is where the Alaska State Fair excels.
That's right. Alaska! This state fair celebrated its 75th birthday this year. While most states tend to hold their largest state fair in the state's capital or the largest city, this isn't the case in Alaska. It's held in the heart of the Matanuska Valley, about an hour northeast of Anchorage. This valley was colonized in the mid-1930s by refugees from the droughts in the Midwest (one of the original barns from this colonization can still be found on the fair grounds). These farmers started what would eventually become the Alaska State Fair.
If it sounds off the beaten path for anyone who doesn't live in Alaska, well, it is. This certainly isn't worth a special trip if you're looking for the deep-fried strange. About the only unique fair food item I found was the fried halibut, and only because the fish is common in the region. However, the Alaska State Fair has something else which I had never seen before, at least not at such a scale: GIANT PRODUCE.
Even if you've seen giant watermelon and pumpkins and such at other fairs, nothing compares to this. The Alaska State Fair this year had pumpkins as large as 786 pounds (!). One of the cabbages weighed in at 86 pounds. There were giant zucchinis, paddy pans, and root vegetables of all sorts, along with giant flowers the size of basketballs.
It's worth noting that size did not necessarily win the prize. Form and color kept the largest pumpkin and cabbage from getting the blue ribbon. Of course, the secret to these vegetable monstrosities is the growing season. While the season is short, the days have as much as 20 hours of sunlight. This allows the vegetables to grow almost continuously. It is well worth the drive if you happen to be in Anchorage or within a few hours of the fair.