Local Color

Our State Fair, as the old song goes, is a great State Fair. It's not just a milking contest, an auto race, and a Gravitron (though it does have all those things). It's not some fringe-y special-interest festival or highbrow intellectual happening or socioeconomically exclusive theme park/gift shop. What it is, as fair vets know, is the Great Minnesota Get-Together. It's a laid-back, meandering, don't-wear-shoes-you-care-about good time. Like Thanksgiving, the annual family reunion, or Y2K, "The Fair" can be mentioned any time of year, prompting an anecdote from anyone within earshot. For 12 days near summer's end, small talk here has nothing to do with the fat guy on Survivor. From water cooler to bus stop to barstool, the question on every local's lips is, "Been to The Fair yet?"

A recent survey showed that 80 percent of Minnesotans list "the food" as the number-one reason for attending the State Fair. We'll presume the other 20 percent work there. The suffix
"-on-a-stick" is embedded in Minnesota lexicon, and among those of us who have attended the fair since infancy there are some who could say "cheese curds" before they could say "Grandma." And although replicas can be found in grocers' freezers and school cafeterias year-round, the authentic Pronto Pup--Minnesota's culinary retort to the Philly cheesesteak or the New York bagel--can be found only at the fair, direct to you from the yellow stand with the "Wiener Dun in a Bun" sign. A mother offers the breaded meat treat to the toddler on her hip, who takes a few tentative nibbles before inclining her head toward another child's cotton candy.

In the back corner of the Empire Commons building, few can linger long in front of the Princess Kay butter busts before succumbing to the temptations of the attendant dairy bar. Impatient for one of the proffered sweet, creamy milkshakes, a middle-aged couple cuts in line in front of me; but the perpetually smiling cashier, a lovely young lactose ambassador with enough composure to rival a Buckingham Palace guard, remains unfazed.

Near the livestock exhibits, the Scotch eggs
(-on-a-stick) booth
--a fair newcomer--attracts many curious onlookers but few takers, though the handful of daring men in Wranglers and suspenders who do sample the unfamiliar delicacy (for the uninitiated, it's a hard-boiled egg covered with sausage, breaded and deep-fried...-on-a-stick) seem pleasantly surprised, offering to share with their companions. The highest proportion of gastronomically induced ecstasy, however, centers on the pork chop
(-on-a-stick) booth. Here the line of carnivores, three abreast, is by far the longest at the fair--including the one for the ladies' room. Paper fans (courtesy of grandstand merchants and campaigning politicians) provide minimal relief from the heat, yet nary a complaint is heard. One well-tanned fellow, having polished off a pair of porcine popsicles, spots a friend in the crowd. "I got pork chops in here!" he shouts, pointing to his abdomen.

Not all fairgoers are so smitten, however. A young Christian rocker is dismayed by the Hawaiian Shaved Ice booth's mere 14 flavors. "The snow-cone guy at SonShine had, like, 35 flavors, and it was awesome," she scoffs.

Owing to journalistic intrepitude, hunger, or just plain insanity, I dare to assay the food building on Saturday afternoon. This structure, an un-air-conditioned edifice that houses several dozen vendors, is the place to go for lefse, deep-fried walleye and catfish (these last two -on-a-stick), and the longest, sweatiest cheese-curd line on the grounds. The tensely smiling staffers at the organic-sandwich and nonfat-yogurt booths attempt to look busy while the buff 14-year-olds schlepping the curds try to avoid strangling customers, and one another. Here, attempting to jump the line or failing to move to the side after ordering is a fair-food felony, and everyone's an enforcer. Popular vendors--curds, chops, French fries--tend to business like Seinfeld's Soup Nazi: Get too demanding and you might find yourself banished to the Apple Cider Float booth.

IN CELEBRATING OUR place at the top of the food chain, it seems appropriate to also seek out those who make it all possible. I arrive at the judging arena late on Thursday night to cheer on young Chelsea and her Beltrami County champion yearling heifer Lily. In pressed Levis and fancy-buckled belts, the aforementioned teen and her coevals self-assuredly lead their charges into the ring. The judge makes a quick decision, then explains for our benefit: "She's got a big, strong front end, and that's what I look for in a female." A Princess Kay underling, wearing her sash and tiara over her T-shirt and jeans, hands out ribbons, and the 4-H'ers exit, not a tear of disappointment nor cheer of victory among them. Lily, a white heifer, receives only a third-place ribbon; the judges are notorious for favoring black cows.

The horse barn is thick with aloof clubbiness and impotent girl horse-lust. Cliques of equestriennes gather in corners like preteens at a seventh-grade mixer while six-year-olds, barely restrained by their mothers, strain to commune with the skittish animals. ("But Mommy, I want to feel the pretty braids in her mane!") By Saturday afternoon, many of the animals have gone home or been sold at auction and their owners wait for replacements to arrive.

Farm kids lounge in the barns, sitting or sleeping on bales of hay in temporarily empty pens, watching portable TV sets, or trolling for a summer fling. Cutoffs and T-shirts ("If There's No Fleet Farm in Heaven Then I'm Not Going") with the sleeves rolled up are the fashion, with a few cowboy hats and overalls contributing to the ambiance.

Fairgoers shuffle into the swine barn, oohing over the Mama Pig and newborn piglets and gawking at Boarzilla, Minnesota's largest boar. Parents hold their children over the sleeping porker's pen until anatomical curiosity sets in, whereupon the kids are whisked away to the nearby Oink Booth for pig-related educational games and paper-pig-ears hats. Anyone for more pork chops-on-a-stick?