A Fair To Remember

Lean pigs are what consumers want these days, says Kaye Compart, hog-show announcer as well as mother of two of today's exhibitors and owner of a 450-sow farm near St. Peter. Pigs' biological makeup, she explains, perfectly fits the demands of a fast-changing market: They efficiently convert energy into protein, growing fast and breeding often. Gestation lasts just a little under four months; piglets are weaned after three weeks, and a week later the sows can be bred again.

The short life span of today's domesticated pigs--Compart calls it "a quick generational interval"--makes them ideal candidates not just for eating, but for biomedical harvesting. "One advantage is that they don't live long enough to concentrate toxins," Johnson says. "The biomedical field is moving away from primates to pigs." Pigs' lips, eyes, and eyelids are very similar to people's; so are many internal organs, and porcine insulin works for human diabetics. It may not be long, Johnson says, until organs are transplanted from pigs to humans. Compart's farm--which produces only breeding stock--is part of the continual quest to, as she puts it, "make a better pig." Each hog's lineage is encoded on a metal ear tag, as well as a unique series of notches cut into each animal's ear. "That's their name," Compart says. She laughs and seems a little uncomfortable when asked whether pigs on the farm are named. "Only the boars," she says, and rattles off a few: Spike, G.I., Floyd, Designer.

As Compart helps her sons tack up the blue ribbons they've won--both have entries that will go to the State Fair--she's quick to deflect further questions about porcine-human bonds. She says she doesn't know the nature of the hogs' sounds and hasn't heard about their intelligence. "Ask them," she jokes, gesturing at the pigs, now once again lying flat in their small enclosures. Their eerily humanlike eyes almost make that seem an option.

"Pigs Have Fur!"
Writers do the state fair
by Hans Eisenbeis

You don't see a lot of books at the fair. You don't see a lot of books about the fair, either. It's not a particularly intellectual institution. Perhaps that's why writers are drawn to it, as a source of fresh characters and colorful background--or, not uncommonly, as an occasion to go slumming in Middle America.

Perhaps the most widely read and discussed mental gymnastics ever performed on the apparatus of a state fair was David Foster Wallace's "Ticket to the Fair," commissioned by Harper's five years ago. Expanded and anthologized in last year's Wallace collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, the piece took its dyspeptic author on a 10-day tour of the Illinois state fair that was both harrowing and hilarious.

But even hard-core DFW fans admit their hero was not exactly a good fit for his subject matter. By way of introducing his subject, Wallace notes that "every so often editors at East Coast magazines... figure they'll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish."

Obediently, Wallace finds himself a "Native Companion," discovers that "pigs have fur!" and exercises his Hegel: "A sense of the world as all and only For-Him is why special rituals drive a kid right out of his mind with excitement." Oh, and of course, the food: "Everyone's packed in, eating and walking, moving slowly, twenty abreast, sweating, shoulders rubbing, a peripatetic feeding frenzy... By the way, Midwestern fat people have no compunction about wearing shorts or halter tops."

Bellyaching over excessive food consumption is something of a motif in state-fair writing, notes Karal Ann Marling, the University of Minnesota professor who has cornered the local market on smart talk about the fair. She cites Jonathan Raban's Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi (published this summer in paperback), which begins with a rumination on the Minnesota fair. "[Raban] was obsessed with fat. Everybody was too big for him. They ate too much, as though that was some kind of mortal sin." It's all evidence, she says, that "this country, particularly its intellectuals, have become a bunch of fuzzy-headed Puritans."

For Marling, author of Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair, the subject is fair game academically not because it can support a lot of high-minded hooey, but because it's rich material for historiography. "The whole point of the State Fair is that it encapsulates the history of the state," she explains. "It's the first institution in the state. It precedes the foundation of the state government. So it's the thing that's been around the longest." The fair is a living museum, and Marling's work has capitalized on it where others have only looked up from their Foucault long enough to pooh-pooh her.

In the realm of fiction, one of Marling's favorites is a little chestnut by an Iowa writer named Phil Stong, a novel set during the Depression. Originally published in 1932, State Fair embodies the middle-American mythology that was at the heart of New Deal recovery; sure enough, it has seen numerous dramatic and film treatments, including a Will Rogers musical that put it in the same category as wholesome offerings like Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls.

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