Meditations On The Minnesota State Fair

I don’t even like fairs. My interest peaked at 14, when I realized my brand new woman’s body had somehow acquired a mysterious power that prompted carnival workers to say strange things when they gave me extra darts for the pop the balloon game (which I got very, very good at), but I was still young enough to ride the Gravitron a dozen times in a row, a feat that now makes me vaguely nauseous just to think about.

But the Minnesota State Fair is different. Yes, there are carnival rides and a plethora of fried food and crowds and of all the usual fair things. But the scale of this thing is almost mind boggling. The Minnesota State Fair is the largest state fair in the nation by daily attendance, handily beating states which much larger populations. It’s also just behind the State Fair of Texas for total state fair attendance, which sounds perfectly reasonable until you realize that Texas is home to a whopping 22.8 million more people than Minnesota and the fair itself runs twice as long.

Whoa. (Or as we say in Minnesota, land of the modest understatement, “Okay, then.”)

Cleary, this event is on another level. This isn’t some charming little fair sustained by the families of 4-H kids, tourists and a quiet subculture fueled by quaint nostalgia. This is a place where locals actually go. It’s called “The Great Minnesota Get-Together” (another modest Minnesota-ism) and people do exactly that.

You’ll see parents wrangling strollers and gray haired seniors walking hand in hand. The aforementioned 4-H kids and their families are here, streaming in from all over the state to display their projects and livestock with a polished, professional air, calm as the eye of a storm. Policy nerds and concerned constituents fire off questions to their lawmakers during live radio debates, teenagers flirt outrageously in multiple languages and everybody from indie kids in perfectly curated, not-trying-too-hard yet curiously Instagram-ready ensembles to Hawaiian shirted oldsters file in for concerts in the grandstand and over 900 shows (yep, you read that right) over the fair’s 12-day run.

This shouldn’t actually work, but it does. A strange and diverse cross section of humanity decides to eat way too much food and see what’s new every year from the end of August until Labor Day. Even though it’s often hot, humid and crowded, we keep coming back. (And many of us insist on driving ourselves — apparently forgetting how colorfully we cursed while parking last year — instead of using the buses and shuttles, an infinitely more logical choice.)

But the Minnesota State Fair is not a place for logic. It’s a place where you convince yourself that giving your child a frosty float and a pretzel as big as his head is a perfectly acceptable dinner and find yourself contemplating the likeness of a beauty queen carved in butter, chatting with strangers at your elbow about the sculptor’s skill and wondering aloud how one realizes that a diary product is one’s preferred medium.

It’s impossible to be cool at the fair. Maintaining the critical eye of cultural critic is exhausting in the face of endless waves of earnest kitsch, time honored traditions, gluttonous treats and unapologetic Americana. You might as well dive right in.

Actually, now that I think about it, it’s usually impossible to be cool at the Minnesota State Fair in a literal sense as well. Shuffling along the asphalt with thousands of sundress and khaki shorts-clad revelers on an endless snack binge is an experience that features plenty of cold drinks, but not a lot in the way of cool breezes.

Unless it rains, of course. Then the prairie wind will pick up and blow your damp and shivering body halfway across the fairgrounds. But I am a Minnesotan, so I will just tell you it’s all part of the experience, so suck it up because it builds grit and character, which are integral parts of the Minnesota psyche. As my dad told me whenever I fell off a motorcycle or a bike or (more often than not) tripped over my own two feet, “Good thing you’re tough. Get back out there.”

So play the balloon popping game. Is it rigged against you? Of course. So are casinos, folks. Do you need the giant stuffed animal you end up paying $97 dollars for? Of course not. Nobody does. But it’s the thrill of the pursuit that matters.

Order that giant bucket of cheese curds already. You know you want to. We know you want to. Minnesotans at home and abroad herby grant you our collective permission to snack on a giant pail of friend cheese to your heart’s content because virtuous protests about you diet are a buzzkill and back-in-the-car laments about the food you didn’t try are even worse. (I recommend the garlic cheese curds and sharing with friends personally, but hey — you do you.)

So try it all. Every year, Twin Cities food writers breathlessly recount all the new fair foods, trying them all and guiding us to the best spots.  I have analytical friends, great masters and mistresses of strategy, who confidently map out everything they want to sample, in a perfectly logical order.

Chris and Liz solve the mystery of the Spaghetti Dinner on a Stick

This is not my way. I prefer to steal of few of their excellent and well considered ideas and then just wander around and see what catches my eye. If you’re not open to impulse, how else will you find yourself sitting in the shade, eating a sweet corn sundae (not as weird as it sounds, there was ice cream involved) and watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” at the Blue Moon Dine-In Theater?

If you’re not receptive to self-assured food marketing gimmicks, how will you find yourself pondering the dark magic of a Spaghetti Dinner on a Stick (the meatball is key — see above), Key Lime Pie on a Stick (delicious, but requires lots of napkins) and Pizza on a Stick? (I never did figure that last one out. I was way too full, even by State Fair standards. Somebody please try it for me and report back, stat.)

The Minnesota State Fair is a place where you can hover right on the edge of sensory overload, but stop yourself from going over the edge entirely by ducking into the livestock barns, pavilions and booths to ponder mysteries that you would never consider under any other circumstance but that suddenly seem vitally important.

I have spent a bizarre amount of time contemplating Suzanne Mears’ seed art.

A random sampling of questions includes the following: What exactly are the criteria for judging dill pickles? Why is this giant hog obsessed with nibbling on the hem of my skirt and how to I get him to knock it off? How does an artist realize they have a talent for seed art and how do they actually procure the seeds? (This last one set off a thoughtful discussion in our group that had me imagining a secret society of seed artists, a tradition passed down through families for generations, a wild and silly tangent even for me, a woman who veers toward the wild and  exceedingly silly with increasing regularity.)

If it all gets to be too much, get yourself up above the fray and get a bird’s eye view. The Great Big Wheel is worth the price of admission. The Skyride is on my radar for next time too. They still retain a whiff of that old fair magic (no, not the horse barn smell, I’m trying to be poetic here, people), even for the most jaded and crotchety among us.

For the truly cantankerous, pull out the big guns. If a bucket full of gooey, perfectly baked chocolate chip cookies from Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar can’t put a smile on your face, then you have no soul. (Or you’re diabetic. In which case, I apologize. I’m sure your soul is just fine. Carry on.)

The beautiful absurdity of making over 4 million dollars on fresh baked cookies in 12 days (churning out as many as 3 million cookies a day, if needed) is a perfect illustration of the spirit of the Minnesota State Fair spirit — equal parts whimsy, gimmicks and indulgence, with a heaping helping of those classic Midwestern virtues, tradition and hard work.

I split a pail of Sweet Martha’s cookies last year, which is absolutely necessary because the portion sizes are ridiculous. The four of us had to make a concentrated effort to eat enough to close the lid – – and we had a dedicated, four-year-old cookie monster in training among us. My best friend, another Minnesota native, couldn’t bear to leave them behind, so she packed them in her carry on and took them to Chicago, giving our friends from Portland and Madrid an addictive taste of our home state.

Chris illustrates the insanity of the Sweet Martha’s portion sizes. We’d already been eating them at this point.

It took days to finish that bucket of cookies. My friend’s four-year-old popped into our hotel room every morning and every night with one shy request — “Galleta?” (That’s cookie in Spanish.)

She had previously regarded me as a bit of a mystery, this strange person who had previously appeared only in photos, who spoke a baffling strain of rapid fire English to her parents but could answer her questions in measured, curiously formal Spanish when her mother had her hands full. But the cookies broke the ice.

I smiled and told her she could have as many as she wanted. She grinned a chocolatey grin and said, in blissed out, early stages of an epic sugar high Spanish, “I want to eat them all.”

Me too, kiddo. Me too. That’s what it’s all about.

What about you?
What do you love about the Minnesota State Fair?
Which state fairs do you go to?
What’s your favorite food at the Minnesota State Fair?
What’s your favorite fair food in general?
Do you still ride carnival rides? Why or why not?
Which State Fairs should I check out next?

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