Nothing says Minnesota better than the State Fair. For those of you who are not from Our Fair State, this is the 10 12 day celebration of all things fried and on a stick, punctuated by tremendous traffic jams. Minnesotans would read that summary of what this is about and be appalled, of course, because it’s much more than that to the people who rely on this summer’s end tradition to mark the passing of their lives. But for those of us who have “Not From Here” stamped on our foreheads, The Fair and the intense focus on it this week will always seem a bit strange. In a state where the local dialect uses the word “different” as an insult, I’d like to simply say that the experience seems to me to be a bit … unusual.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The State Fair originated as a showcase for the agricultural bounty of a land of tremendous wealth. It is not by accident that it is right next door to the Saint Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota, aka “Cow College” or the center of agricultural studies and engineering. This is the place where many varieties of wheat, soybeans, and apples were developed among many other great advances. It’s where Norman Borlaug developed what we know as the “Green Revolution” that feeds the world as we know it today. This campus is one of the most important places in the world as we know it, but it humbly sits aside the city, visited only once a year by most by most of our population.
Agriculture still commands a lot of the space at the fair. There are barns full of cows and pigs and chickens that fill up the west side of the fairgrounds, and other exhibits such as “crop art” or scenes painted with seeds glued to cardboard. It’s great stuff, and I really enjoy this part of the fair. But what takes up the vast middle of the grounds are the booths full of what people come for now – foods fried and served on a stick for E-Z consumption on the go.
The entire fair has moved on like a cow does, eventually winding up in the deep fryer, much as our society has moved on from being producers to being consumers. To me, there is a terrible sadness to this which I see in the eyes of the gentle giant cows that are still lovingly tended by the wide-eyed kids from outstate.
It’s been about 20 years since we had a “Machinery Hill”, or the place where farm equipment was displayed for sale. It also has moved on to become a place where lawn mowers are displayed now that suburban grass has become our state’s most lovingly tended crop, if not the largest one.
That is what I do not like about The Fair. The animal barns that a city boy like me might normally sneer at are well worth the price of admission because they tell me a story in hay and ribbons and the glorious smell of manure. Watching this gradually pushed aside, as if the Agricultural School is nothing but a place to park nearby, bubbles up a disquiet feeling much like I get from too much greasy food. Our great heritage has somehow become an afterthought.
There is much more to The Fair than this, of course. It’s “The great Minnesota get-together,” as the tagline reads. I will not be too critical of a place where everyone enjoys the same experience in gobs of quantity time spent next to people they might not otherwise see. That experience is unique to Minnesota and has to be valued. It is one of the few things left that make us one people, united and strong, at least in years when Vikings football seems a bit hopeless.
I can’t get into The Fair as much as people who grew up with it. I hope this is understandable and people won’t paint me as a tired old curmudgeon. It’s not that I look down on the experience as being too hayseed for my sophisticated palate – far from it. What I really enjoy is the stuff apart from my ordinary life that trace back to a time apart from today. I prefer my livestock on the hoof, not on the stick.
If you want to go out to the fair with me, prepare to spend a lot of time with the animals. That’s what I go there for. They can tell us a lot more than just “mooo!”