Taste Test: Indiana State Fair and Dig IN

Can this month’s major food festivals find common ground?

For lovers of food and crowds, August used to mean only one thing: the Indiana State Fair. These days, though, an upstart tribute to Indiana agriculture is making a legit challenge to the Fair’s dominance. In some ways, Dig IN (Aug. 25), back for a fourth year at White River State Park, has already outclassed its older country cousin. Not by size: With roughly 900,000 attendees, the State Fair (Aug. 2–18) is still the undisputed heavyweight. But Dig IN has swagger thanks to a lineup of epicurean-approved restaurants and name-recognition chefs. This year’s addition of exclusive VIP tastings with culinary stars such as Recess’s Greg Hardesty and The Libertine’s Neal Brown emphasizes the difference: If the Fair is for eaters, Dig IN is for foodies.

Dig IN’s impressive pedigree traces back to famous California chef Alice Waters. (For you “eaters,” Waters and her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, helped pioneer the farm-to-table movement.) During a 2008 visit to Indianapolis, Waters had lunch with a few of Indy’s top chefs and posed a question: “What are you doing around this state to promote Indiana foods?”

The Fair, though near to our hearts, wasn’t a good answer. Aside from corn on the cob and a handful of food outlets run by ag associations (Dairy Bar, Pork Tent, etc.), it often feels more like a showcase for batter, skewers, and oil than homegrown produce, artisans, and toques. “I go to the State Fair every year, and it’s fine for what it is—fair food,” says Thom England, who was a culinary instructor at Ivy Tech when he attended that lunch with Waters. England and company took her inquisition as a call to action and organized Dig IN, which debuted in August 2010 to a sellout crowd of 3,000. The winning formula is still in effect: Indiana restaurants and food-makers plan menus, source ingredients from Hoosier farms and ranches, and prepare enough samples to satisfy the throng. Attendees pay $40 apiece to stroll around and sample about 30 dishes; if you’ve ever watched Top Chef, the setup will remind you of challenges that involve feeding a crowd. Dig IN upped the ticket draw to 5,000 last year and still turned people away.

But cut the Fair some slack. Scaling what Dig IN does to 17 days and nearly a million mouths almost certainly would be impossible. (And the day the Fair charges $40 for a ticket is the day you’ll see rioting on 38th Street.) Besides, the Fair’s biggest appeal might be that it isn’t on trend. It’s where one goes to indulge annual cravings for funnel cake and deep-fried Oreos.

That said, Fair organizers are stepping up the kinds of attractions Dig IN–lovers want. Last year, they added the DuPont Food Pavilion to showcase local artisanal foodstuff and chef demos. This year, farm-to-fork cheerleader Slow Food Indy will take over programming there for one day. “Five or 10 years ago, we would never have been invited to do that,” says Rob Gaston, the group’s chairman (and Dig IN’s director).

So maybe the Fair and Dig IN both deserve a blue ribbon. Goodness knows we’re happy to chow down at both.

BONUS: See photos below from 2012’s Dig IN event.

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue.