A Fair To Remember
We showed up for the fair early this year. The place looked like a ghost town with hardly a soul around--a couple of gardeners tending their prize cannas, a maintenance worker whistling around in a banged-up golf cart, one squirrel dancing the high wire with what looked like a kid's mitten in its teeth.
But along the back 40, the City of 12 Days was already coming alive. A flatbed crept in, crammed with wheels and wires and cages like something NASA might blast off. Winnebagos idled in line like circus elephants outside the main campground. A gang of farmers had pitched their lawn chairs in the dirt, looking grim and a bit nervous, as they have since The Bridges of Madison County clued them into what farm wives do while their husbands are off at the fair.
Tomorrow it starts: Pancakes off the barge-size griddle at dawn. Last check on the johns. Fryers plugged with soft white fat and fired up. Warped woofers. Smoke-coated sweat. Screaming kids on leashes. Hawkers. Hookers. Horses. Radio DJs venturing out from their Plexiglas booths to ask the volk if they're having a good time: It's not a trick question, and no one says No.
Eat, drink, spend, throw up, hate yourself, fall in love; none of it matters because none of it is really happening. Soon you'll rub your eyes and it will all have vanished--the acres of half-glazed faces stunned and stupored on sugar, milling around the Midway with fists full of tickets, whipping out their checkbooks for another round as the evening goes orange, the faint-hearted shuttle away, and whoever's left climbs aboard, straps in, and shoots up, all speed and spinning, into immortal orbit.
Into the Frying Pan
Dispatches from the world on a stick
by Beth Hawkins
The worst are the media types. Unlike the rest of the hungry masses, they reach the counter without wallet in hand. "Hi! I'm from XYZ. We talked about you on our morning show." They beam. They wait. They want you to offer, which they apparently reason makes it OK to accept freebies. If you're an inexperienced vendor still giddy with being a Great Minnesota Get-Together insider, you offer. If you've been around the block, you beam back. "How nice. What can I do for you?"
The paying customers just fuss, ask, make special requests. Sometimes what they want is as simple as extra napkins. We find them later, trampled into the dirt out back of the stand. They're never sure they're getting their money's worth, these families spending their way across the Minnesota State Fair's 310-acre campus on a budget.
"Is this cooked through?" Of course it is. World War III would break out if I tried to serve food this immolated at home. We overcook 'em just for paranoid types like you. "How much is it?" Just how long did you spend standing on the sidewalk staring at our sign? Long enough to suffer heatstroke, apparently.
"Is this the only kind you have?" Right. The name of the product is plastered all over the side of the booth. It's on the chest of my T-shirt, the one that was baby blue when the fair opened its gates, before nightly trips through the washer between 1 a.m.--the earliest fair workers can dream of getting home--and 8 a.m., when those of us who are related to the perpetually short-handed proprietor have been rooked into coming back. Even my hat bears a little picture of our food item (unnamed here in the interest of not promoting a family member's business), gone an even more disgusting color from soaking up the grease which coats each air molecule inside the booth.
Mostly what the customers want to know while they stand at the window, change pocketed, waiting for their sticksicles to turn a precise shade of caramel, is about the business. "Where'd you get the idea?" "Who owns this?" "How long did you wait for a spot?" And finally, the inevitable: "Gold mine, huh? Make enough off it to live all year?"
It's no good telling the truth. See, Mr. and Ms. Fairgoer have already made up their minds that someone inside this booth found Willy Wonka's magic candy bar. There's no way, if the line's going to keep moving at a profitable speed, to explain that operating a food stand at the fair is a business like any other. It's not the capitalist equivalent of running off with the circus, nor the ticket to an endless sabbatical in Bermuda. It's an entrepreneurial gamble, 12 short days in which to be made or broken by the weather, a fickle public, and the hope that your stand won't burn down and your workers won't all quit in greasy disgust. At the end of it, if you're lucky, you'll have a week in Cancun or an edge on your kid's college tuition.
After years of evading, waffling, and prevaricating, last year I came up with an answer for Mr. and Ms. Fairgoer that does the trick. "It's a lot of work," I smile. Minnesota Nice, but it changes the subject.
Telling you how my brother--I'll call him Bill--thought up his product or got the license to operate at the fair would tell you who he is, and neither he nor the fair administration are interested in that. He's run this business since the mid-'80s, holds a job the rest of the year--two or three, in fact--and lives in a small suburban house with his family. They've usually finished eating up their leftover product by the time they dip into their fair earnings to take a winter vacation somewhere both warm and cheap.
Until recently they didn't even do that, plowing their profit back into the business instead. Now that it's up to code and tricked out with the right equipment, there's enough capital to buy a Kenwood house sunk into the booth. That's a lot of cash to leave sitting under a tarp for 11 months a year.
Bill figures he's one of the top dozen fair vendors in terms of gross sales, but the numbers are hard to pin down. Vendors are notorious gossips, prone to swapping serious lies over beer after the fryers shut down. The small operators, the ones who peddle product out of small wood-frame "stick stands," jealously exaggerate the size of everybody else's take, and the larger ones try to suss out the newcomers. Everybody resents the really big players--holdovers from days gone by, when a handful of folks had the concessions all but sewn up.
Every year, some 330 food vendors set up shop at the fair, most operating a single booth. They can't sell their licenses or will them to their kids. When a vendor quits, dies, or doesn't get invited back, his or her permit reverts to the fair. Ten or 12 new businesses are licensed each year; this year they'll include a booth selling battered, deep-fried pickles and another producing ice cream shaped like spaghetti and served in a dish with sauce.
Deciding where to put each of these businesses, balancing sweet with savory, lemonade with beer, pickles with Pronto Pups throughout each of the fairgrounds' neighborhoods is a feat of engineering, and Jim Sinclair is its chief architect. The head of the fair's sales operation, Sinclair knows the number of people projected to amble down any one street at any hour of the day. He can adjust that number up for heavy weekend traffic or down for rain. He can pick through a hopeful souvenir merchant's kit bag and, in less than 90 seconds, find the baubles that will sell. Behind his back, the vendors call him "God."
Sinclair has spent his entire post-grade-school life working toward becoming a fair czar. Growing up in Chippewa Falls, he jobbed at the fair there throughout high school and college, then moved on to staff jobs at several other Wisconsin fairs. He can name the exact date he started work at Minnesota: February 16, 1975.
In those days, the fair was a clubby place. There were fewer vendors, but many owned multiple stands. You could buy a corn dog on each corner, but no walleye on a stick, no stuffed, deep-fried jalapeños, no elk burgers. Many of the stands were cheesy plywood-and-paint affairs. Operators were charged for their licenses according to the number of feet of street frontage they occupied.
Slowly but irrevocably, Sinclair set about changing that, and ratcheting up the fair's revenue in the process. A quasi-public state entity created by an 1854 act of the territorial Legislature, the fair hasn't gotten a taxpayer's nickel since the 1950s. Each year it has to make enough money to pay for exhibits, maintenance, and building renovations. And while that may not sound like much, the cost of a new roof on one of the bigger structures can top $1 million.
In the late 1980s--not long after Sinclair took on his present title--the fair began charging food and beverage vendors a flat 10 percent of gross receipts for their licenses. In Bill's case, that instantly changed his fee from about $1,500 a year to tens of thousands, plus electric and sewer assessments and other fees. Souvenir and novelty vendors now pay 15 percent of gross, game operators up to 20 percent, and ride operators between 20 percent and 45 percent. (Unlike most fairs, Minnesota operates its own midway. Rather than contracting with a carnival company to bring in the whole shebang, some of the fair's 50-plus full-time staffers choose each individual ride and place each game.)
Along with hiking the fees, Sinclair's sales operation began diversifying the ranks of the vendors. To stay vital, he explains, the fair must constantly offer something you can't get elsewhere, something you couldn't get here last year: "It's kind of what we see as our mandate," Sinclair explains, "providing what our audience has come to expect. Something new, something different--that's what brings people back every year."
But there's more to securing a license than a bright idea. Would-be vendors must fill out an extensive form which asks for information about the proposed product as well as an applicant's business history, experience in food and beverage sales, and references. Those who can supply all of the data--and most can't--are further evaluated.
"In the restaurant business you don't get the kind of inundation that you get on a day when 100,000 people show up at the fair," Sinclair explains. "We look at whether they have experience at other fairs, at what kind of equipment they have. There are some things that conceptually or artistically sound really great, but can be practical failures." (On the topic of failures, as well as the exact number of inquiries fielded each year, Sinclair is vague; all he'll say is that it's been a long time since the bulk of the applicants were amateurs hoping to exploit Great-Aunt Millie's secret Divinity recipe.)
Vendors must be able to negotiate the fair's logistics, find suppliers who will deliver materials at odd hours, and secure workers happy to endure long, hot hours for low pay. "In 12 days, that person has all the costs associated with operating a business," says Sinclair. "The cost of a license, equipment, labor. An operator only has 12 days to make it. If they get too much rain, or not enough help, it can have a big impact on the bottom line."
Applications that make the short list go into a file, from which Sinclair and his staff draw when a spot opens up. Space requirements factor into the decision: Some corners of the grounds can't hold a vendor who needs a refrigerated truck. Others can't accommodate long lines. And each addition must help preserve the balance between hot and cold, exotic and traditional, sweet and sour.
In the end, the handful of applicants who get the nod in any given year probably think they've been given a license to print money. They may even hang on to that illusion until Labor Day, when they count the till one final time and mumble, "Gold mine, my ass."
Meanwhile, God watches. Tinkering, as is his style, with the details. Fair staffers count foot traffic in buildings and at attractions. They count the number of items-on-a-stick leaving a vendor's window at different times of the day. They flyspeck the books. "We look at every operation every year," says Sinclair. "We do a lot of photo-taking, we review everything at the close of the fair, and we get involved in the aesthetics and functionality of every business."
Here's what that means from a vendor's perspective: Bill's first few years, he sold from a stick stand barely big enough for a cook and a counter attendant. From the start his lines were long, helped by the lack of a proper ventilation system to steer the cooking smells above the heads of the public. Since there was neither room nor cash for extra help, the pace was frenetic. It was unbearably hot and stuffy. Forget meal breaks, you prayed for time to go to the bathroom. The first year I worked there, all the little hairs on my arms were singed off as we put out fires and fixed the various low-tech gizmos that kept us cooking.
After a while--when, Bill guesses, it started to look like his stand was going to make it--God came around and asked for changes. "They told us that they wanted us to build a flashy trailer," says Bill. "We submitted three sets of plans they had to OK before we could build. They would come back to us and say, 'You have to change this or that.'" It all seemed like a big hassle.
Until the following August, when business doubled. Suppliers had to be contacted, orders increased with barely enough time to thaw the product. Nonfamily workers had to be hired mid-run, no easy task when your home base is a tent. Still, the lines grew longer. For nearly two weeks, it looked like Bill was cooking his way to the Promised Land.
Hah. The longer lines meant an even bigger stall, the higher capacity required still more costly equipment. The nonfamily workers came with payroll, withholding, and insurance. Not to mention the improvements Sinclair suggested--paint this, spiff that up, iron out some glitch or another.
"He makes you work for every little thing," Bill says of Sinclair, more amazed than irritated. "He doesn't want your paint to look dull. He wants this crisp, clean, almost professional, urban look. It's getting away from being a farm fair. Now it's an urban fair."
Several years ago Bill's old two-man stand got trucked away and converted into a sauna at a friend's cabin. He says he misses it, conveniently having developed a mental block about the nights he spent sleeping on its greasy floor. It's not the hardship he wants back, it's the rush of being part of a tight-knit clan of folks who had nothing but one good idea and two weeks' worth of stamina.
Like other vendors, he used to barter a lot, slipping a snack to the garbage collectors to make sure they came by a couple of extra times, or to the off-duty police patrols who might offer a ride to the campground where most vendors flop for the duration of the fair. There was almost always a pitcher of beer stashed under the cash drawer or above the windowsill. Everybody stayed up all night every night drinking more beer. Bill met his wife at the fair; the rest of us road-tested the tempers of our significant others by parking them over the cooker and disappearing for a couple of hours.
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.
"We are the original recyclers. We have been in business for 116 years, since 1882," David Van Hoven, CFO for the Van Hoven Company, says with the pride of a man whose last name is on the corporate logo. "We are also 100 percent recyclers: Everything is usable. There are no waste streams. And we process hundreds of millions of pounds of grease every year."
When it was noted that Warkle had agreed to City Pages' witnessing of a live grease pickup, and that a tour of his wonderful facility might also be in order, Van Hoven grew somewhat agitated and started talking about how competitive his business was, and about the need for classified information and trade secrets. His reaction might cause one to wonder if the guys who process grease for a living had to submit to top-security clearances. Sure enough, the next day Warkle let it be known that the planned rendezvous by the giant, wheeled fryers was suddenly verboten.
Still, Van Hoven could not help but divulge a bit of the high-tech wizardry taking place at his rendering plant. "Actually, we employ several different technologies," he revealed. One is "cooking at a very high temperature to achieve 100 percent sterilization." In addition, there is an evaporation process, where the grease is flowed into vast furnaces, the moisture burned off, and all the impurities mechanically separated. But the most intriguing technology involves something called hydrolization. "We hydrolize feathers. You can't cook them," Van Hoven says, sensibly enough. "We make a chemical reaction on a feather which causes it to explode and turn to [the consistency of] dust, which becomes feather meal." It's then frequently fed back to poultry--opening fascinating new vistas on the previously exhausted chicken-or-egg debate.
Some of the grease rendered by Van Hoven is turned into fats used in soap products. Most of the fat from the fair turns into yellow grease, which Van Hoven says is "a high-energy fat that we blend with other, lower-energy fats that become an animal/vegetable blend." This blend is sold to owners of livestock, who mix it in as a small proportion, maybe 2 percent, tops, of their feed rations.
The price of rendered grease products currently wavers between 9 and 15 cents per pound. "Today's market is depressed and it is selling at about 10 cents a pound," Van Hoven said last week. That's not much money when you're exploding feathers to make your weight. But as Van Hoven indicates, the rendering of used grease is an exacting, efficient business. In fact the whole process makes for a tidy circle: The remnants of food-booth animal grease are used as feed supplement for other animals doomed for the grill, the griddle, or the fryer--fat perhaps roasted or fried off their own parents. During the next 12 days when some fairgoer will inevitably remark, "This Pronto Pup is coming back on me," she won't know the half of it.
Oiled Up, Screwed Tight, Ready to Ride
At camp with carnies and their iron darlings
by Josie Rawson
"Ditched my diploma and joined up in Del Mar," Chad's telling Shorty, who rolled in with another crew around noon. "Got on running grease for the Scorpion in Utah. Climbed to the doghouse"--the ride's control booth--"in Texas. That was, hell, '88, '89, I lost count now, but fast, I mean by Georgia that year. Tattoo in Knoxville. Postcard home from Missouri. Guess I was a born migrant. Lucky me, though--follow the carny route and it's like you're living in summer year-round. By the time we tore down and shipped out for winter camp, I mean you couldn't talk to me about shop work or getting stuck in some spot with the same front yard every time you wake up."
"Like a magnet, right?" Shorty, who's been running rides for nine years, drawls through a cheekful of chew from the stoop of his bunkhouse parked on the shore of the midway's vacant, 1-acre island. Opening day for the fair is a week out, and there'll be long hours tomorrow when the Ferris wheel comes in from Kalamazoo, the roller coaster from South Bend or Kansas City--Chad's lost track--and setup starts. Tonight there's just waiting, after two days of waiting and laundry and sleep, and catching up among carnies who haven't crossed paths since Dallas or Miami or Phoenix. "Right? Like a big fucking magnet?"
"Maybe a magnet," Chad answers in no hurry. His felt hat looks chewed up, with tufts of sun-bleached hair poking through the crown. "Maybe like what they say the sea does. I mean calling you out off dry land, like you can't stay put there."
"Some poet," a voice says out in the dark, past the glare of an electric spot wired to one of the dozen semi rigs lined up in the dirt. All that's visible is the lit tip of a cigarette out in the weeds where Larry's gone to piss. He laughs, coughs, steps back into the sickish green light coating the makeshift encampment, and squats, still smoking.
"You guys are going to make me cry," Larry tells the two, screwing up a face that bares his rotted-out teeth and turns his chin into a patch of stubble and shadow. "I'll tell you what carny life's like. It's not old-world gypsy life. Not the sailor's life. Not even glamorous. What it is is work. It's not what those lumber monkeys over there do"--gesturing across the expanse to where the game barkers camp--"setting up stick shacks a good wind could take. Shit, it's work--like pleasing a woman's work."
The analogy cracks the circle up and makes Sean, a 14-year-old kid from South Bend who's homeschooling on the road with his carny parents, hunch over the Coke in his lap and blush.
Shorty: "When's the last time you had a chance at that?"
Larry: "Soon enough. Come on, I'll show you."
He pulls another Old Milwaukee from the stash up under the rig's bow, nods to Bubba, their freckled, redheaded boss, who's puzzling over a leak in his bike tire with a flashlight and patch kit, and leads the way down the row of bunkhouses. By the weekend, a fleet of them will roll in and park for the fair's 12-day run.
This balmy night, all doors--four to a trailer--are flung open for air. Inside one of the 5-by-5 rooms, a TV splashes its blue glow over the steps, and the sound of a girl's voice mimics a Jerry Springer guest getting her heart broken. In another of the cramped cells, a shower's running. Next door, talk radio.
Beyond the quarters, as if marooned on the scrub and wild grass at the camp's fringe, sit the rides--the Himalaya, the Mardi Gras, the Sleigh, the Scorpion, the kiddie go-rounds, all with their spokes and cages, strobes and amps in pieces strapped onto flatbeds. One needs four trucks to move; another, a rented crane to hoist it. A car on the little wheel flew off its orbit last week at the Farmington County Fair, Chad says, though no one was in it--a brush with a ride operator's nightmare.
Times have changed, Larry's telling nobody in the procession who doesn't already know it. "Used to be among carnies you could pretty much do as you pleased. Most guys like me pleased for a little weed, drinking maybe too much till you woke up face-down in a ditch in a town and time you couldn't place. Hell, there were fights broke out all the time, mostly old-timers keeping the greenies in line. Cussing, coking, hair down to your ass. Nowadays, we got drug tests at every stop. You got to keep your hair collar-high and your face shaved. Chad here just took a break in detox for a coupla weeks so he could pass clean piss. Bubba likes him, seems, so he staked him to a little holiday."
"Tell you what, somebody gets hurt on a ride and the authorities would be on you before you could say jack," Shorty says. "Forget getting fired, I'm talking about doing serious time."
"It's not my way anyways." Larry's stopped and turned somber. Cicadas in the nearby ditch click away in a weird chorus. A storm smells a breath away, but it won't break for days, and across the midway the lit-up game trailers and occasional firecrackers look like a constellation crashed on the tar. Some old version of "Rocky Top" blares out of the dark, a staticky lick that washes down the wind tunnel between rigs.
"To last here," he goes on, "there's some simple ethics: No going overboard with the mind-benders. Keep it clean. Keep it in the law. Get used to having no anchor. Get an iron gut for fair food. Learn your own weight on a crew. Mind the boss. Don't mind the mash and noise on a hot night. Don't mind the clock."
Chad: "Sometimes you can even count on the company's owner coming around. I mean--"
Larry: "Right. And all sitting down at a decent place for a steak. On him. He's an old carny himself. He knows how to stay civilized."
Chad: "I mean, everybody around the same table, like a family or something. The last time was right before we headed to Portland, when the season closed. You'd think all these guys might splinter off and go their own direction, back home, if there is one, or for the Florida sun, but no. We drive the bunks out to the carny camp where a bunch of outfits go fishing for winter."
Larry: "Like I told Chad here, one of these days I'll just sell my girl off and buy a shrimp boat. I'm thinking that's the life."
Larry's girl, here at the end of the convoy, is the Crazy Dance, a four-flatbed, nearly $1-million contraption that'll take three days to erect and check. She lights up on a switch like a cruise ship, he says; grinds on a greased flywheel the size of a satellite dish, sings like a siren, slicks down in sweat and puke over an evening, but she's glorious. "All you need to run her is a good head, and a couple deckhands hired cheap to take tickets, which is easy enough to find. Some guys I hire on year after year in a town. Kids maybe, before school starts, but burnt-out slugs, too--guys who sleep for a week in a spillway waiting for the carnival to come to town."
It's with a kind of rapture that he spills the Crazy Dance's secrets: the exact angle at which to time her controls ("wrist like this, cocked, ready to trip it"), her habit of lurching and squealing on the back stretch ("snaky-like when she's having fun"), the ways he's come to know her mood by the motion and tilt of her track after a morning's lube--30 squirts top, 10 below, and a can on the buried gears. Nobody touches the Crazy Dance without asking. Nobody steps into her doghouse. Larry's got a special kit for polishing her after a morning ritual wash and lube--a chamois and camel brush, some pricey wax for the chrome hub fittings. He didn't pay for her, but he owns her, if owning means what Larry means when he says he's tamed her over the years so she knows it's his hand tending her parts. Crazy Dance has turned on him a couple, three times over the years--a sudden shimmy during safety check, a stripped screw that slipped during rinse-off--but Larry's bum knee and neck scar because of it don't show or slow him much. "You play, you pay," he figures, at a cost he stopped keeping count of several seasons ago.
Daylight's coming quick, Chad says, looking off at the only skyline there is on the midway--the grounds' permanent stands, some higher-up's big trailer decked out with flowerpots and a flag, the cinder-block laundry house with its one light burning. "Seems like I earned myself a blue body doing this. Not from bruising, which I do get, and more, when I slip setting safety. I mean my whole body's a fading tattoo from all the places I've tried to remember in ink. Here's Nashville. Here's Montreal. Here, down my spine, there's a rattler I killed under my ride in west Texas." But you can't see the prints. It's dark yet, and he and the other men are already moving across the midway toward camp.
Down by the midway, a knot of adrenaline addicts are spinning out horror stories by a boarded-up corn-dog stand, trying to freak the bejesus out of their cling-on, hickey-pocked girlfriends: Hey, hear the one about the 13-year-old girl who got pitched off a roller coaster in Myrtle Beach? It took two rescue workers 20 minutes to peel her off the chain-link fence. Hear about the guy who got his head cut off at an amusement park in Missouri? They say his lips were still moving when they scooped him into the body bag. How about the kid from Utah who fell out of his coaster car, yanked himself up from under the tracks, and then got creamed by another car? A couple days later they found his shredded high-tops strung around the Space Needle.
Like most urban legends, tales like these can usually be traced to actual events. A young girl did die on the tracks in South Carolina, a boy did get mauled by a runaway train, and some poor soul did lose his head in 1980. What these accidents felt like, looked like, or sounded like, though, is grist for imagination's mill. Indeed, more than a few Minnesota teens at this year's fair will no doubt be stealing their material from the local media, where two recent tragedies at the Mall of America's Camp Snoopy have been reported with a surprisingly tasteful lack of sensationalism.
In truth, amusement rides are as safe as--actually more safe than--a slow Sunday drive in the country. And it turns out that the Minnesota State Fair's record is particularly sterling. The National Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that over 270 million people visit amusement parks each year. On average, 7,000 of them--a mere .0026 percent--are treated for ride-related injuries, mostly of the minor variety, like sprained ankles or dizziness. And 80 percent of those mishaps, the commission concludes, are due to "rider misconduct." As Jim Sinclair, the Minnesota fair's director of sales and ride guru, likes to remind folks, a person is more likely to slip to death in the shower than to get scratched on any one of the 65 rides on this year's midway and kidway. What's more, he says he doesn't know of a single fairgoer who has perished onboard a ride in the Get-Together's 113-year history.
Call on industry experts around the country, or chat up a few grizzled carnies setting up shop in St. Paul, and you'll get the same story: The Minnesota State Fair is worthy of imitation. Bob Johnson, head of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, says that's because Sinclair and company go way beyond what's required.
State regulations require that each ride be examined by an electrician after setup, and that all operators submit an annual certificate of inspection. Typically, this work is paid for by the ride operator's insurance company and done by independent contractors such as Bob Gill, a Florida-based safety inspector. Since 1994, however, Sinclair--not the state or an insurance outfit--has hired Gill to work the fair from opening day until the last rider leaves intact. Considered by Johnson to be "one of the best in the business," Gill and his staff of 12 will walk the midway early every morning, checking the mechanics, connections, and electrical integrity of each ride, from the Tornado to the Crazy Dance, the Orbitor, the Scorpion, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Zipper. They'll also make sure each ride operator's morning OJ is freshly squeezed, by administering on-site drug tests. "Jim Sinclair books excellent people with excellent equipment," Johnson says. "And from day to day, Bob Gill goes above and beyond the call of duty."
What's most unique to Minnesota's home court officials is their unwillingness to allow any one vendor to overextend his staff. At other fairs and carnivals, companies that construct and maintain amusement equipment can be responsible for as many as two dozen exhibits; in Minnesota, they're allowed a maximum of six. "It's not unusual that a fair might have quotas," Sinclair says. "But I think our numbers are unique. We believe an operator can provide the best operations if they're not spreading themselves over too much equipment."
Given that it's more dangerous to wander the fair's parking lot than it is to brave the Cliff Hanger, why do riders still get sweaty palms while standing in line with their tickets? Why do kids still dare each other to ride the Inverter without hanging on? Richard Adams, a Minneapolis-based psychologist, believes people are drawn to the midway for three reasons, all of which are related to a risk that is more fantasy than anything real.
"With younger kids, it's about mastering their fear. I think kids will gravitate toward experiences that will provoke a level of fear which they can then master. Then, for some, there's an addictive quality. Like sex addicts and gamblers, they're addicted to the thrill. If your heart isn't in your throat, you aren't really feeling. The final level is a rite of passage. Outside of normal religious traditions, there are no societal rites of passage. This is true especially for teenage boys. You'll see them do a vision quest, where they'll go out and test themselves. Extreme sports, thrill rides, and the like are especially popular."
Adams adds that even though the chance of injury is remote on the midway, it's typical for riders to heighten the adventure by perpetuating myths. "Tall tales are part of the mastery," he says.
So before you hop on the Ferris wheel this year (one of the fair's most popular rides), consider this: Despite Jim Sinclair's recollection, someone did greet the reaper as a result of a bum ride at the fair. In 1905, a car fell off the Ferris wheel with a middle-aged woman and her husband inside. According the newspaper account, he recovered; she met her maker on the way to the hospital.
That's all we know, dear reader. Embellish, if you will.
Beyond the Butterhead
The business of being Kay
by Christina schmitt
Until Norm Coleman agrees to have his likeness carved into an 85-pound slab of butter, Princess Kay of the Milky Way will remain the biggest celebrity draw of the State Fair. She is its supreme monarch, her status uncontested by the relatively obscure Honey Queen, or by any of the 26 male and female Pork Ambassadors (the Minnesota Pork Producers have swapped their Pork Queen program for a more egalitarian form of representation).
And contrary to what oglers at the fair's Dairy Building might tell you, there is life for Princess Kay beyond the revolving cooler where she and the 10 runners-up pose for their butter sculptures. "This isn't a beauty pageant," says Kari Skiba, the outgoing Princess Kay. "This is a professional role. We're representing an industry that is very important to our state." Consequently, once the fair is over, Princess Kay morphs from sideshow attraction into powerful marketing tool for the American Dairy Association of Minnesota.
It's a tradition that goes back to 1954, when the Minnesota Dairy Industry Committee was looking for a fresh face to fight milk's bad PR, including reports that nuclear fallout from bomb tests was contaminating dairy farms. Rules for the selection of Princess Kay of the Milky Way--a name chosen from 10,000 entries in a public contest--have changed some over the years; the emphasis shifted from beauty to home-ec excellence to public-relations skills.
Skiba has a degree in animal science from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and a sublime command of her bovine subject matter (she can tell you the optimum udder size for any of the six primary breeds of dairy cows found in the U.S.), not to mention plenty of dairy cred. The 22-year-old was born and raised on a dairy farm outside North Branch, about an hour north of the Twin Cities. And while denying strenuously that appearance has anything to do with the Princess Kay selection, Skiba, like most of her recent predecessors, is a cutie who proves that big hair is still très chic in royalty circles.
Not acceptable, by contrast, are big bellies: Contest rules state that Princess Kay will lose her crown if she gets married or has a bun in the oven during her reign. "They don't want you to get tied down," Skiba says, "so you can go to various events throughout the year. I don't see anything wrong with it. They're looking for a youthful, wholesome, quality dairy girl to represent the dairy industry." Last year Skiba averaged four appearances a month, earning $40 a pop, fielding dairy questions at events like the Minnesota Broadcasters Association's annual dinner, and giving milker-unit demonstrations in grade school classrooms--all tasks bravely performed while wearing her rhinestone tiara.
Though Skiba isn't certain whether the Asian economic crisis has begun to affect Minnesota dairy farmers, she says right now the industry "is doing great. It contributes $3.5 billion to Minnesota's economy annually." She brushes off worries about corporate buyouts of family farms: "Right now we're losing farmers," she says, "but the number of cows is at a level rate. There's still a lot of milk being produced out there."
And when asked about farmers' complaints about the mandatory fees (about 1.25 percent of a farmer's total sales) collected by the Dairy Association to pay for promotions like, well, herself, Skiba says, "My parents, who are dairy farmers, have no problem with it. You have to promote your product if you want to make any money off it." Unflappable, this particular princess even carries milk cartons to flash at parade hecklers who ask if she's "Got Milk?"
On August 26, the night before the State Fair's gates open, Skiba will relinquish her title to a fresh princess. Ever pragmatic, she has already landed another job, as public relations coordinator for Accelerated Genetics, a Wisconsin-based company that sells dairy and beef cattle semen all over the world. As for the sculpture, "some girls are sentimental about cutting up their butterheads," Skiba concedes. "They keep them in the freezer and never use them, but after two years the butter goes kind of rancid. I cut mine up and melted it down for a corn feed." She laughs. "No one got to roll their corn in my head. But I always wanted to eat my butter, and it was really good-tasting."
Hug it? Eat it? Hug it? Eat it?
Hogs and humans are a lot alike--except pigs might be smarter
by Constance Gray
Forget shuttle buses, admission fees and 45-minute waits for funnel cakes. Park anywhere there isn't pavement. This is the Nicollet County Fair in St. Peter, where judging livestock, and not family entertainment, is the raison d'être. For the 4-H kids who trot out their "projects" for this early-August morning's hog show, this is where it has to happen. The winners at today's contest and other county fairs across Minnesota are the only pigs that will be exhibited by 4-H'ers at the State Fair.
In the open-sided swine barn, the rich, meaty smell of live pig thickens the air. The hogs, separated into small wooden pens housing three or four animals each, snooze quietly on heaps of clean wood shavings. Their long, cylindrical bodies fit against each other as neatly as puzzle pieces.
A light breeze plays through the barn--a good thing on a muggy day like this. Despite the expression "sweating like a pig," hogs can't perspire, except through tiny glands in their noses. They must seek shade, water or mud during the heat of the day or they will die. Hence their reputation for laziness--and for filthiness.
"Given the choice, pigs are extremely clean animals," says Rodney Johnson, a veterinarian of swine production medicine at the Morris-based Swine Health Center. They will use one portion of their enclosure exclusively for eating, another site for sleeping and a third as the bathroom, Johnson says. They also enjoy exercising, just not during the day: In the wild, pigs are nocturnal. To them, mid-day feels like midnight to us.
Maybe that's why they simply grunt contentedly when a hand reaches inside the wooden pen to touch their flanks. A swine's sparse hair is coarse, but the skin is remarkably soft--much like a human's. So much so, Johnson says, that pig skin often is used for grafts to cover human burn wounds.
A teenage girl wearing blue-jean overalls and heavy eye-makeup opens a pen and uses a crop similar to a horseback rider's to jostle a young castrated pig. It's showtime for the barrow, which, since its birth less than a year ago, has grown from three pounds to more than 260, some 50 percent of that lean meat. "They're stubborn sometimes," the girl says as she maneuvers the pig into a holding area, where she joins half a dozen other farm kids exhibiting in the 261-to-276-pound class. "Pigs definitely have minds of their own."
Watching swine being handled, it's easy to see where the expressions "pigheaded" and "hog wild" come from. Market pigs have very little contact with humans in their eight months of life before slaughter: They usually live in temperature-regulated confinement barns where movement is limited, and they are fed by machines. Projects get a little more attention: They're often pulled out into a separate barn where they're walked and fed--and, before a show, bathed several times--by their owners.
Still, get a hog into the unfamiliar surroundings of a fair, and you'd better watch out. A spotted pig being guided to the show ring goes quietly at first, then swiftly turns 180 degrees and heads for a narrow opening at the end of the barn aisle. Its escape is stopped by a 4-H dad carrying a 2-feet-by-3-feet plastic shield.
The best pig handlers are the people who've learned to move like them. Their pace is slow and measured, yet imbued with the energy to dodge, cuff, or body-block at any given moment. Still, mishaps happen. One 11-year-old exhibitor is knocked over by his pig as he attempts to steer the animal into the holding pen. A girl limps after her project steps on her foot. Spectators perch on a small rise of bleachers offering close looks without the dangers of hand-to-snout combat.
It is possible, says porcine vet Johnson, to train pigs to walk on a leash and come on command. "Pigs are highly intelligent," he explains. "They're such a social animal, and they enjoy human interaction. They respond to toys." Swine have been coached to use their keen sense of smell for a variety of tasks: French truffle-hunters use pigs to sniff out their buried treasure, while the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig Rookie worked for a while detecting narcotics for the Tacoma, Washington, police department.
But to train a pig means to spend lots of time with it, and these 4-H kids are learning to produce a food source, not a pet. In the ring, they struggle to keep their projects under control; the pigs are quick to figure out where the exit is and congregate there, loudly voicing their desire to leave. Pigs produce a number of meaningful sounds, Johnson notes, denoting everything from alarm to contentment. "They're not unlike human babies."
The pigs' vocalizations are the last thing on the mind of hog judge Randy Morris, whose eye is trained to detect ham, pork chops, and bacon under the animals' skin. "This is a more three-dimensional pig," he says about his first choice in this category. "There's muscle, shape, and direction. He's going to cut a real good carcass." A lesser pig "has too much fat cover. He needs more muscle content and more product all the way through."
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.
Stong's book showed that the best fit for the fair may not be the essay, but the pulp novel--witness Pete Hautman's 1996 The Mortal Nuts, a manic mystery set at the Minnesota fair. The book is a wild and offbeat romp among the food concessions, "researched" over the five years in the late '70s when Hautman worked at the fair's pineapple-on-a-stick stand. What's most refreshing about it is the absence of any condescension or irony, even though Hautman plays on just as many state fair stereotypes as Wallace. "The number of people milling about was staggering," he writes in one characteristic vignette. "Like a rock festival, but without the stage to provide direction and focus. He had never seen so many people, especially so many chunked-out people, all in motion at the same time. Where the hell was he?"
The fair turns out to be a perfect setting for Hautman's unique literary conceits. A typical Hautman novel pits a gritty, poker-playing Hemingway type against the insidious forces of soft-headed New Age poppycock. "These are the hemispheres of my personality," says Hautman. "And the State Fair is a great leveler. You can be a wealthy doctor-lawyer, but it will not get you your corn dog any faster. It's a wonderful place for finding contrasts and commonalities of every type." So does all this recent literary attention signal the upscaling of yet another American tradition? Sure, says Marling--but in a different sense than you might think. The one constant about the fair, and the single biggest truth that David Foster Wallace missed, she argues, is its role as a barometer of the times. Both the automobile and the airplane were first introduced to the local public at the Minnesota State Fair, Marling notes. "[The fair] is tremendously sensitive to the winds of change, even though there might be aspects of it that strike the snotty urban dweller as being hopelessly out of date, like sheep judging."
Hautman concurs, based on a lifetime of observation. "The fair has changed tremendously over the past 30 years," he says. "It's safer, cleaner, and much larger. The food choices have multiplied sixfold." Call it upscaling, Marling says, or call it moving on: "Americans have always strived for something better. People went to the fair before there was even a fairgrounds, to see things that would make their lives better. Which is what I think a definition of upscaling is all about."
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