The Evolution of the Minnesota State Fair
How 4-H kids run the show.
All around the country, it's state fair time. The Minnesota state fair is one of the largest and has come become known for its fried food on a stick. In this 2006 "Dispatch," Ben Crair took stock of the fair grounds, including the swine barns, the greasy nourishment, and the 142-foot bungee jump. The article is reprinted below.
The milk at the Minnesota State Fair is ice cold with a thick mustache-forming layer of foam on top, and you can drink as much of it as you'd like for a dollar. It quenches thirst like water, especially after you've eaten a dozen warm, soft-centered cookies. My third and final glass is served to me by a beauty queen—one of the 12 finalists in the Princess Kay of the Milky Way pageant. When they are not busy having their heads sculpted in 90-pound blocks of butter, these beauty queens are everywhere, reminding fair-goers of the wholesomeness of dairy with an evangelical fervor.
They represent just one of the many interests on the 320-acre fairground. The grounds are organized around a few large buildings—like the barns, the grandstand, and the education and agriculture buildings—and in between, like candies in a bowl, sit the vendors' multicolored stands. They bear names as bright as their facades: Spaghetti Village, Bayou Bob's Gator Shack, Wild Bill's Curly Fries, Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar, Monty's Traveling Reptile Show, Deep Fried Cheese Curds, Flowering Onions, Custard's Last Stand, and the AFL-CIO House of Labor.
The foods from these booths drip with grease or butter and sometimes both, and unless they are served on a stick, as 48 conveniently are, they are best consumed sitting down. This is more of a challenge than it may seem, since every seating area is already taken by the elderly and the obese. From their seats, over the tops of tents and trees, visitors can occasionally see the airborne victims of the fair's two most expensive rides: the Slingshot, which is exactly what its name says—a bungee cord, stretched to the ground between two 142-foot posts, to which two riders are harnessed and released skyward at 100 miles per hour—and the Skyscraper, a 165-foot pinwheel with freely rotating seats at each end, which spins its riders at vomit-inducing speeds.
These two rides signal the entrance to the midway, the fair's carnival grounds. With its offensive colors and overlapping carnival-ride soundtracks, strolling through the midway is like taking a walking tour of one's own headache, and I avoid it, other than the obligatory journalistic walk-through. Its visitors are mostly small bands of tweens and tired parents dragging distracted children with one hand and toting oversized stuffed animals in the other. I take shelter in the barns out of earshot of the mangled carnie noises.
Urban types are often scared off by the barns' prevalent odor—a mixture of unwashed flesh and soiled straw—but I admire the economy of creatures that make meal, bed, and toilet out of the same batch of hay. Least offensive of all the animals are the rabbits, who share their barn with the fussy and constantly clucking chickens. The rabbits lie quietly stretched across the backs of their cages or balled in corners, out of the reach of their viewers. They don't respond to a finger wiggled between the bars of their cages.
This apathy is characteristic of the barnyard animals. Cows and swine hardly flinch at human touch. The sheep, adorned in Klan-like white robes and hoods that protect their wool, bottleneck in a corner whenever someone enters their enclosure. The goats are the only animals that regard their viewers with a canine curiosity, mounting the fronts of their pens to greet visitors. Goats are said to be intelligent, and perhaps this cockiness is due to their awareness that they, along with the horses, are just about the only animals exhibited at the fair whose future does not lie a few yards away, deep-fried on the end of a stick.
The fair, which makes such a glorious display of the source and the final form of our meals, is mum on the process that connects the two, and the event's one glaring absence is a slaughterhouse. On the road beside the cow and swine barns, you can purchase a foot-long hot dog, a corn dog, a pork-chop sandwich, a cheeseburger, a taco, shredded pork, and ribs. The farm kids, to whom most of the animals belong and who show them in the fair's 4-H competitions, hold no illusions about their animals' fates. They go about tending their animals with an economical detachment and leave the oohing and the aahing to their nonrural visitors.
Ben Crair is an associate editor at the Daily Beast.
Photograph of Minnesota State Fair performers by Arthur Grace/ZUMA Press.