A Fair To Remember

Things aren't so freewheeling anymore. Once Sinclair's sense of order compelled Bill to start keeping books and tracking inventory, he realized he could no longer just hire family and divvy up the take at the end of the day. This year, an early start for many metro-area schools has dried up his workforce, making for extra hours spent pounding the phones in search of friends and relatives willing to take a shift in the stainless-steel galley. It's not as much fun as it used to be, Bill will grouse with increasing frequency starting around the Fourth of July.

And then he's out there claiming a campsite and setting up shop. And he runs into a couple of the friends he sees only 12 days out of the year, fellow citizens of a parallel universe. And he picks up right where he left off last Labor Day. "It gets in your blood," he concedes. "You hate it right up until the night before, when you start to get excited. And then you think, 'OK, let's go.'"

In the evenings, when the families have left and the childless fairgoers are parked at the grandstand show, there's a lull during which equipment gets cleaned, supplies restocked. Things will pick back up in an hour or so, when the concert lets out and the midway starts to shut down, but for a little while it's quiet.

It's at that time of evening that Bill says Jim Sinclair can often be seen sitting by himself in one of the dining halls or maybe a beer garden. He doesn't swap lies with the operators, or quiz stragglers about the high points of their day, I hear. He just sits there smiling to himself, watching the details flow seamlessly into one another.

The Legends of Ancient Grease
Inside the fat vat
by Britt Robson

Without it, a Pronto Pup would look like a shaved, impaled poodle. French fries would go the way of the dinosaur, and circle cakes would exist simply as globs of dough.

We're talking grease, folks, the great enabler of most sustenance hawked at Minnesota State Fair food booths. Furthering tradition at the Great Get-Together, this year's fairgoers will consume thousands of pounds of the stuff, fueling a digestive tilt-a-whirl with as many thrills and spills as any ride on the midway. But, alas, some of that grease gets left behind--impudently swept into catch-basins by gastronomically correct short-order chefs with little regard for our sotted stupors. Over the fair's 12-day life span, gallons and buckets and vats of used grease go by the wayside. What happens to it?

Silly question. The fair sells it, of course. As with precious metals, the price of grease fluctuates from day to day on the open market. For the past three years, the fair has sold its grease to the Van Hoven Company, a rendering firm based in South St. Paul, for the average going rate over a four-week period during August and September. Last year, that price worked out to slightly less than three cents per pound on a total sale of 15,967 pounds--just a couple of dozen chicken wings and a doughnut hole shy of 8 tons of grease.

"Obviously, it's not a real significant source of income for us," chuckles Jim Sinclair, the director of sales at the fair. On the other hand, Sinclair acknowledges that getting someone to "dispose of the grease in a responsible manner," and actually pay four or five hundred bucks for the privilege, isn't such a bad deal.

The used-grease biz does not operate on the principles of a trickle-down economy. Rather, all vendors at the fair are responsible for hauling out in buckets their own "animal or vegetable by-product" and dumping it into one of 30 receptacles, ranging in capacity from 55 to 300 gallons, parked in 20 different spots around the grounds. As you might expect, the food court area is the mother lode of used grease, with six 300-gallon bins. The french fry vendor who sets up near the midway also deserves special mention for earning his own personal grease-collection tub.

The guys hired by Van Hoven to retrieve the grease work for the Environmental Recycling Corporation, also headquartered in South St. Paul. Between midnight and dawn, three or four times during the fair, they arrive in custom-designed tractors and trailers. Their grease-gathering M.O. is similar to that of trash collectors in that the fair containers are hydraulically hoisted 17 feet in the air, and their contents dumped into massive trailers. But instead of the pulverizing compactors featured on garbage trucks, the grease trailers are equipped with a propane heat system that reliquefies the solid fat. "Each trailer is like a giant fryer," says David Warkle, president of ERC.

While Warkle allows that the fair is probably his biggest account while it's in swing, ERC and Van Hoven team up to gather grease from restaurants and beef and poultry processors throughout the metro area. "We treat a pickup at the fair like we are doing 20 restaurants," Warkle explains, noting that loading the contents of each tub takes about 10 minutes. When the trailers are filled, ERC takes its payload to Van Hoven's plant, where it is sucked out and rendered.

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