I grew up on a dairy farm. Friends and family showed livestock at the county fairs, in hopes to make state. It was competitive. In high school, FFA membership and being popular were not mutually exclusive. Nor was it a punch line from Napoleon Dynamite. The cattle barn smells like my youth, which I always thought smelled foul until I moved away to cities like New York and Beijing and discovered truly foul smells, such as July garbage. By comparison to what humans can produce, cattle stink is refreshingly organic. I’m both relaxed and uncomfortable around the grounded but socially retarded farm kids who have better relationships with swine and goats and heifers than they ever will with many of their peers. There are so few of them left.
The vacuum of focus left by ag’s exodus has been filled by a combination of the usual suspects (rock concerts etc.), nostalgia for the fair itself, and quirk-most of it food-based. (Conan O’Brien was “immortalized” in bacon and white chocolate to promote the fair; all media file de rigueur “on a stick” stories.) Meanwhile, the fair, still Minnesotan in geography, is decreasingly Minnesotan in substance.
I looked hard for something to start off the “Good God, are fair people fat…” part of this but found nothing beyond the pale. The best example was a hippopotamus in one of those runabouts, wearing, ironically, a towing company cap. Nothing beyond the pale means nothing beyond normal disgusting American bovinity. (Actually, cows are thin compared to Americans.) The Midwest, in stereotypical form, is the average of national obesity rates. But fairgoers do appear to be doing their best. One of the longest lines was for Sweet Martha’s Cookies, which are purchased by the bucketful and then grazed upon while walking. Everyone tells me Martha’s are the best cookies ever. The breathless testaments to their unmatched tastiness seems a way to justify buying them by the bucketful more than anything else. Fried cheese curds really are to die for; I can think of worse ways to go. It’s not that visitors shouldn’t stuff their faces. That’s always been part of the fair’s attraction. But when your every day is “the fair,” what’s the point?
Food here was once dominated by local non-profit groups, which relied on the event for their annual revenue. (One owner’s two French fry booths turn over $800,000 during the 12 days.) Dozens of volunteer-staffed church-run dining halls used to sling hash; now there are just four. Though under current economic conditions, every paying job is a blessing, and teens are competing with out of work financial analysts for shit-paying thankless jobs sweeping trash and selling Pronto Pups, or in the case of Caleb and Rebecca Parker, dealing with drunks who “line up at their fish and chips stand, slapping down $20 tips for a female co-worker before vomiting on themselves.”
Oh hey! Senator Al Franken was here, drawing vocal cheers from the crowd by
offering his independent and brave stance on how Congress is selling out Americans with meaningless heath care reform drawing a surprisingly accurate map of all 50 U.S. states.
I dropped by the aforementioned Timber Team show. If you ever listen to Sarah Palin and wonder why she mentions “snow-machining” so much, it’s because of the huge crowd packed in to watch “top athletes from all lumberjack sports” compete in “lumberjacking” skills like the axe throw. A scripted bit of the show, a competitive log roll, has one of the performers fall on his testicles. He quickly stands, face gruesomed, and mimics splashing cooling water on his damaged manhood. Ow! My Balls! On cue, the audience goes nuts with laughter and applause.
If there is a moist, fetid ass-end of the modern Minnesota State Fair, it is the International Bazaar. A wildly popular labyrinth of stalls selling “exotic” merchandise, the International Bazaar could not be less Minnesotan. Batik dresses and gilded, overpriced, foreign-looking crap spills from stalls named Okongo Enterprises, Exotic Everest, Sante Fe Touch and Chez-Gautier (“Provance Imports”). The mess and its popularity forms a substantial argument against recent hopes that the financial crisis has maybe turned Americans into something more than the tasteless consumer undead. These zombies hove to the back of the International Bazaar to the “Holy Land” where they “discover the original flavors of old world cuisine,” including grape leaves and “falafel on a stick.” Imagine your own crowded market suicide bombing, I suppose.