Today we go to the fair. Tomorrow, next year, the rest of my life?
I can’t promise that. In 20 years of living just a few miles from the Minnesota State Fair, I’ve been there exactly once. Its appeal is a mystery to me, an enigma wrapped in a mini-donut inside a beer belly. It’s hot. It’s crowded. It’s debased, a gladiatorial spectacle in which the seven virtues are slain by the seven deadly sins, their carcasses skewered, deep-fried, and laid out in the sun as if in warning. For 12 days of the year, the devil wears stretch pants.
My girlfriend, Lucy, can’t get enough of it. She volunteers in the political booths. She enters the contests. It’s in her blood: her mother, through 4-H, showed vegetables at the fair. Her great-grandmother and great-aunt both won the sweepstakes prize for the best overall entries. As I write this, Lucy is debating whether to enter her banana bread or her chocolate-oatmeal cookies. Once she submitted a cake decorated with frosting meant to look like corn dogs.
If we’re going to stay together, we’re going to the fair together. So Lucy has agreed to take me under her wing for one full day at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, in order to answer a simple question: Could I learn to love the fair, for love’s sake?
When we arrive, it’s 10 a.m. and already 90 degrees. The air is thick with smoke, heavy with grease. I can’t tell where my sweat ends and someone else’s begins. The devil is crooking his finger at me, snapping his elastic waistband.
I stand just a few feet inside the gates, orienting myself—a pointless procedure. There are foot-long hot dogs next to snowcones next to chicken chops next to Al Franken’s booth next to Bob’s Snake Zoo (“It’ll scare the whiz out of you!”). It’s almost a parody of juxtaposition, the neat, orderly nature of Minnesota melted down and served with powdered sugar.
“Check this out,” Lucy says, nodding at the family music tent. “They always have weird stuff there.” Sure enough, half a dozen dudes are dancing onstage to “Hammer Time” in black bodysuits and red masks. “My name is Yoda,” one dancer tells the crowd. I believe it.
But Lucy assures me that much of what repels me about the fair—the chaos and bad decision-making—is part of the fun, if you stand far enough back. We buy a Pronto Pup (much better in its pancakey batter, Lucy argues, than its more popular cousin, the corn dog) and move into the shadows, the better to point out passersby.
Consider this woman in a T-shirt that says, “Condom Club, $2 a month.”
Consider this guy with a comb and mirror, openly teasing his long, greasy skullet.
Consider this man with a yardstick carelessly cradled between his butt-cheeks. He’s so loaded down with swag as he waddles into the Midway, that he’s decided to slip his free ruler down the back of his pants, so that it sticks up behind him like a flag on a bicycle.
Who are these people and what do they do when they’re not here? All my life, I’ve striven to make good choices, believing they were necessary simply to stay alive. After just 10 minutes at the fair, in a moment of supreme self-regard, I wonder, How do these people survive?
“Honey,” Lucy says, dabbing at my temple, “you’ve got mustard on your head.”
Clearly, I’m in the minority: the Minnesota State Fair is America’s most popular, surpassing all others in daily attendance. To bypass the fair is not just un-Minnesotan, it’s un-American. How else to explain the preponderance of women here in American flag bikinis, spilling relish on the stars and stripes?
My traitorous tendencies even run counter to the stories cooked up by Rodgers and Hammerstein, E.B. White, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—all urban aesthetes, all remarkably thin, all fair fans. For them, a state fair conveyed American ingenuity. Look what we can do. To the winner goes the prize. For A Night at the Fair, a short story published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1928, Fitzgerald set his characters adrift in the “tunnel of love” called the Old Mill (now the oldest ride at the fair), the midway being a stand-in for the mystery of attraction, the marvel of desire.
But, in truth, the Minnesota State Fair has struggled nearly since its inception to please everyone. Then as now, the state was divided along urban/rural lines. And by the 1890s, to attract city folks, the fair had allowed a gauntlet of seedy sideshows to grow up around the agricultural exhibits: wheels of fortune, blind-pig races, soda jerks who spiked the pink lemonade. The Grandstand began hosting mock battles worthy of ancient Rome. Ultimately, in 1933, the fair cancelled a few pastoral harness races in favor of a “thrill day” full of barnstormers, airplane wing walking, human cannonballs, and the like. The opening event was a staged train wreck.
Sounds good to me. But for some reason—costs, insurance, CGI—all these spectacles have been scrapped and instead of a train wreck we have, well, Kid Rock. We have bacon on sticks. We have, as Lucy and I discover, an oral hygiene exhibition inviting people to brush that bacon out of their molars—not after the fair but right there in shared sinks. Would it kill someone to crash some locomotives together?
The wonder of the fair, as at modern-day circuses or magic shows, is now largely gone, its pleasures antique. Instead, as with so much of contemporary American life, we’re offered quantity instead of quality. When Lucy and I pass Sweet Martha’s cookie stand, where plastic buckets are filled to overflowing with discs of chocolatey dough, I can feel my resentment rising. Within an eight-foot radius of the stand, there are hundreds of dark circles on the pavement—grease marks from the cookies that toppled off, the stains of gluttony.
What bothers me isn’t the waste, or the obesity, or even the spike in my health insurance needed to pay for the guy bent over a bucket of cookies today and a doctor’s table tomorrow. It’s the nagging notion that we’re better than this, that we should have something more to show for our American ingenuity than the ability to stuff ourselves silly—and that I wouldn’t want to read a short story about Sweet Martha’s.
Lucy doesn’t see things my way, because she’s too busy looking for what she wants. “Forget the midway, forget the grandstand—forget everything you think you know, okay?” she tells me. “I don’t go to the fair to try weird things on a stick.”
Instead, she guides me to the more honest spectacle of calving cows in the Miracle of Birth Barn. “Is that a pubic bone hanging above the cow pen?” I ask Lucy. Yes, it is.
She introduces me to the curious pleasures of the Creative Arts Building, where a young guy with bad teeth points to a display and advises us, “Check it out, your jaw will drop on the ground.” He’s talking about quilts.
She takes me wherever blue ribbons can be found. Because the fair, she says, for all the stuff you can buy here, has always essentially been a contest. The biggest pumpkins, the fattest pigs, the straightest zucchinis (or whatever their ideal shape is)—these are the real evidence of our ingenuity. And all those ribbons are benchmarks. To have one is to know you measure up. “We’re a striving state,” Lucy says. “Work on it!”
As we approach the dairy building, Lucy notes, “There are two things we need to do in here”—get a malt and see the butter busts of the dairy princesses. We need to do this, she says, for the same reason that we needed to see the winning rows of perfectly uniform corn kernels (congrats to Cody and Levi), the outspoken seed art (“The party’s over, T-bag,” says one piece ripping the Tea Party), eat corn on the cob, and drink root beer bought from a guy in a barrel. It’s tradition. It’s what stays the same, even as the sideshows come and go. You just need to know where to find it.
And so we stand in line for malts as though for communion, the butter statues arrayed behind us like idols. And I begin to understand. No matter how much things change, we probably haven’t lost our way so long as we can still get a good, cold cup of malted milk. “It’s an annual check-in,” Lucy tells me, a milk mustache forming above her lips. “Where are we at as a state?”
But I still don’t know what to make of this guy coming towards us, the one in jean shorts carrying a giant stuffed gorilla, a ruler shoved in his pants.
I don’t know what to make of the recent health study reporting that only 65 percent of women, and just 39 percent of men, wash their hands at the fair.
I don’t know what to make of the people who would respond to this ad in the fair restrooms: “Still a virgin? We can help at the parking lot.”
But Lucy knows how to bridge this divide, too. “We’re going to get some cookies,” she says, and steers us back to Sweet Martha’s.
It’s dark now, and the massive shapes of people moving about with spilling buckets are like something out of Fantasia, gothic and cartoonish. I order a giant cone full of cookies, just for the two of us, and say nothing when it’s piled beyond reason. I do nothing when a couple of cookies topple onto the pavement.
This is how it’s always been, I think—in Fitzgerald’s day, country women rubbed calico-covered shoulders with insouciant flappers, all drawn by the same basic desires. Now, as night falls, I can’t even tell who’s who.
“Once a year, the fair lets me get in touch with the rest of Minnesota,” Lucy says.
“And guess what? We live in a state where people wear jean shorts and carry gorillas. Hell yeah!”
I lean back, take another cookie. And then another. And then another. “Good, right?” Lucy says.
I say nothing, because my mouth is full and because I’m flexing my bicep, wondering what it would take to win one of those giant gorillas.