Even though the 2020 Illinois State Fair was cancelled due to the pandemic, folks can still go out and find ways to celebrate Illinois. The very first state fair was held in 1853 in Springfield and showcased new and improved methods of agriculture and livestock production, innovations in labor and industry, the arts and education. It's still possible to keep this spirit of the Illinois State Fair alive, even if folks have to wait another year before sipping a lemon shakeup or zooming down the big slide.
Illinois grows some of the best tomatoes and sweet corn in the world, so stop by a local farm stand and score a dozen freshly picked ears and ripe tomatoes, then make your way over to one of Springfield's locally owned butcher shops and pick up some juicy pork chops and a jar of Riley's seasoning to recreate a fair favorite at home.
In 2002, Riley's Seasonings partnered with the Illinois Pork Producers to debut the now-famous pork-chop-on-a-stick at the State Fair and have sold thousands in the years since. To make this at home, liberally season the chops with Riley's Seasonings and let them sit in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to allow the savory spices to permeate the meat. Soak thick skewers in water before spearing the meat to keep them from catching fire on the grill, then sear the chops over medium-high heat until lightly charred on both sides.
You can also roast corn on the cob in your home oven just like the pros at the fair. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and trim the top of the corn, remove the tassels and remove the first layer of husk; however, don't completely shuck the ear of corn. Place the corn directly on the oven rack and roast for about 30 minutes until the husk is brown and pulling away from the corn. When you remove the corn from the oven, wrap it in a dish towel and set aside for about 10 minutes until cool enough to handle, then simply remove the remaining husks and serve.
The Wine Experience at the State Fair, sponsored by the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, has become a major feature of the fair in recent years, featuring local wine, craft beer and live music. A short drive to Danenberger Family Vineyards in New Berlin checks all those boxes. Owner and winemaker Susan Danenberger makes top-notch wines from estate-grown fruit right here in central Illinois, served in DFV's stylish tasting room, in addition to seasonal Hand of Fate craft beers on tap. They've converted the front porch of the tasting room into a new outdoor stage with a spacious lawn area, perfect for getting your groove on while still socially distancing.
There's no butter cow this year, but folks can get up close and personal with real cows and dairy goats at local dairy farms. Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign sells award-winning goat's milk cheeses and gelato out of their store on the farm, open on Sunday afternoons from 1-4 p.m. Guests are invited to safely enjoy a cheeseboard and a glass of wine or craft beer at distanced tables in their pavilion.
Ropp Jersey Cheese in Normal makes a variety of cheeses on site, using the milk from their herd of registered Jersey cattle. Jersey cows, with their large brown eyes and fawn-colored coat, are known for producing milk that is particularly rich in protein and butter fat, which results in some of the best cheeses around. The farm store is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and welcomes visitors to come and see how their product is made first-hand. There is a visitor viewing area where folks can watch cheese makers hard at work, and they will even take you on a walk through the cow barn if you wish. In addition to the line of cheeses, the farm store sells local eggs, beef, pork, honey and hand-dipped ice cream.
You may not be able to visit the fair this year, but you can still enjoy many of the tastes and treats associated with the Illinois State Fair.
Ashley Meyer lives in Springfield with her husband and two daughters.