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Take note of the youth that are staying in the dorms above the animal barns, young people full of hope, promise, and laughter. They are obviously having as great a time watching the city folk traipse through as we are traipsing. One year, when I was quite pregnant and awkward, a dimpled, smiling face called down, "Pardon me, have you any Grey Poupon?" We laughed together, and had one of those precious moments that only strangers can share.

 

What to eat

Early in the day, church kitchens serve yummy, economical meals, and the morning crowds are light. There are a number of food vendors also open. Consider a hot dog for breakfast; it certainly may be difficult to imagine, but it's fast and inexpensive. Mini doughnuts are classics, and actually justifiable at that hour of the day. Just as they open is also a terrific time to grab those most popular items that boast forty-five-minute lines later in the day: fried cheese curds, fudge puppies, the pork chop on a stick. If the parent in you deeply needs to see your children consume something approaching healthy, consider the caramel apple. It's fruit, more or less. Sure, candy coating is involved, but it's very slow eating. And look for the fresh-roasted corn on the cob; there is definitely a vegetable lurking under the melted butter.

 

What to avoid

Another essential element to State Fair sanity maintenance is "managing the Midway": In other words, Avoid it.

Not that I'm bashing the Midway: We've spent many happy hours there and expect to again, when our children are older. But for some reason, that particular area seems hotter, louder, and more tiring than the others. When children are very young, creative routing can prevent them from ever seeing the Midway. As they become wiser to the tricks of the parental trade, they can be pacified with the Kidway (rides geared toward the younger set) and even reasoned with. But this latter technique works better if the explanations begin the night before or on the drive to the Fairgrounds. Reinforce that there are amusement-park rides in lots of places, but the things that make the Fair unique--animals, crafts, butter queens, entertainment--are the plan of the day. Besides, it doesn't open until 9 a.m., and by that time kids can be happily involved with activities way at the other side of the Fairgrounds. Pick a couple of biggish child amusement things to space out during the day and spend some time at the Kidway.

And beware of the Haunted House. It's really scary. Actors don't touch, but they do reach out. While many aficionados are devoted to it, I haven't had the nerve since before my first pregnancy. Watch the faces exiting and assess whether it's a good idea for your crew.

 

Where to go

Look to the exhibit buildings for amusement and amazement. The Princess Kay contestants becoming immortalized (for a while) in one-hundred-pound butter sculptures must be seen to be appreciated. Explore all the different sorts of things people have cooked, baked, sewn, sculpted, painted, raised, and grown over the past year. Walk through a living informercial underneath the Grandstand, visit the petting barn, the snakes, and the wild life.

And listen to music. There are stages all over the Fairgrounds that have performances going on all day. Check out the daily schedule, saunter over, spread out the blanket, and relax. Listening to music outside, next to the people you love most in the world, is a gift not to be taken lightly.

 

Best Boat Rides

Canoes on Lake Calhoun

Minneapolis

 

With the large, fast-paced crowds who use the foot and bike paths around the chain of lakes for fitness and recreation, it can sometimes be hazardous to explore around the lakes with small children. But, with life jackets securely buckled on everyone, families can climb in a canoe or two at the Lake Calhoun refractory and soak in the peacefulness of a paddle on the lake. Everyone moves at the same pace in a canoe, so older siblings can't dart ahead, leaving frantic toddlers struggling to catch up.

Canals connect Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles, and Cedar Lake. Look for otters, geese, mallards, and other lakeside wildlife. Sing camp songs, take in the stately mansions, drift under the branches of enormous trees, and wave at the fishing folk. And see if, in the middle of a busy city, you can find a place that is silent.

 

Best Sunday Brunch

Kieran's Sunday Brunch
with the Kyle Family

330 Second Ave. S.

Minneapolis

(612) 339-4499

 

Brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at this authentic downtown Irish pub, but plan on being there close to noon for St. Brendan's Launch, hosted by Hillary and Paul Kyle. Arriving at the Gospel Brunch is like joining a warm, friendly, and musically inclined Irish family for a church revival. There is first, of course, the Gospel, shared and explored in respectful way. But there are also songs, stories, and dancing to highlight the gathering. Children are embraced and encouraged to revel in childhood as the waitstaff graciously maneuver around laughing little ones. This is one of those rare places that knows how to make dining out with the whole family a pleasure. The reasonably priced food is simple, satisfying, and plentiful, and there are entrées for almost every palate. As the Kyle family sings each week:

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