“Oh, this is another
one of those onion things, isn’t it?”
Countless sensations comprise the Minnesota State Fair. Go there and you will see the lights streaking off the Ferris wheel as it slices through the night sky. Go there and you will hear the protestant squealing of pigs who would rather wallow than be judged before a crowd. Go there and you may feel the blunt impact of a giant, inflatable hammer as it is brought down upon you by an overexuberant five year old.
“We still use our father’s original batter recipe.”
Yet no sensations are more essential to the fair than its smells. I’m not talking about those which are produced by the pigs, but rather those that waft and billow away from the endless food stands. And the fair’s greatest smell of all is primordial: oil, batter, and onion – nothing more. This is the smell that emanates from Danielson & Daughter’s Onion Rings.
Back in the 1950s, Bill and MaryAnn Danielson were the Twin Cities’ resident serial restauranteurs. One after the other they opened The Pizza Shack, Prince Danieletti’s, and the Inn of the Purple Onion. Eager to cut a slice for themselves out of the state fair’s business, the Danielsons opened a pizza booth there in 1956, simply named “Pizza.” By 1963 they felt well-established enough to open a second booth at the fair, this time taking greater liberty with its name.
From its conception, Danielson & Daughter’s Onion Rings was a family business. With the characteristic thriftiness of their generation, Bill and MaryAnn didn’t find their onion ring stand’s employees by posting in the classified section. They found them in the three little girls running around their house.
“When we were very young, my sisters Leanne and Tracey and I used to run around the fair all day long,” reminisced Sheryl McGuire, née Danielson, co-owner of Danielson & Daughter’s Onion Rings. “Our grandfather worked at the grandstand, so we always knew where to go when we needed more money. But when each of us turned ten, Mom and Dad put us all to work peeling and slicing onions.
“Fortunately, one of the Zuccaro brothers had wanted my parents’ business from the very start. When he finally got it, Zuccaro’s Produce started delivering freshly peeled and sliced onions to the stand every morning. Imagine all of our relief when we got to put our knives away!
“ We’re part of a great tradition of family-run food stands
at the Minnesota State Fair.”
“We still use our father’s original batter recipe. He used to tell everyone that if you put it on a griddle, you’d have a pancake. Dad taught us that the magic is all in your hands – tossing the onions in just the right amount of fluffy batter, gently sprinkling them into the deep fryer, and then carefully keeping them from clumping up with two spatulas. We fry in 350 degree oil, but every batch has to be watched closely to make sure it turns out just right. There’s an art to the perfect onion ring!
“This might seem like a strange confession coming from me, but I’m not even that big of an onion person. I would never order a burger with them. But there’s just something about our onion rings that’s so good, they’re known to convert people. Ours are lighter than a restaurant’s, crispy and fluffy at the same time, if that makes sense, and just oniony enough to be flavorful without being overwhelming.
“We’re about as ‘family’ as it’s possible for a business to be. My kids have all worked in the booth at some point, and so have my sisters’. A lot of them still take 12 days off every summer to pitch in. But even if they’re not related, everyone in the booth is part of the Danielson family, all family friends going way back. We’re part of a great tradition of family-run food stands at the Minnesota State Fair.”
Danielson & Daughter’s Onion Rings remains in the same spot Bill and MaryAnn chose back in 1963, just across from the Agriculture Horticulture Building. You can find it by looking for the gold and yellow awning and the smiling onion faces adorning the top of the stand – if the smell of sensational onion rings doesn’t find you first.
by David Scheller