America's greatest get-togethers
The street preachers posted just outside the main gate of the Minnesota State Fair are relatively mild in their condemnation. Yes, their yells strongly suggest the tens of thousands who stream past in pursuit of funnel cake and Pronto Pups are headed as certainly to hell as to indigestion, but they do consistently allow the possibility of salvation.
It's a Minnesota Nice touch to the standard hellfire and brimstone, as is only right at the "Great Minnesota Get-Together," the largest state fair in the nation by daily attendance.
I went on opening day this year. The weather was a perfect 70 and sunny, and the parking lots were full by 10 a.m. We arrived in early afternoon and found a spot on the front lawn of a nearby house, where a very old man took our $20 — the going rate in the lucrative yard parking market — and wished us a good fair.
Minnesota's fairgrounds are different from other state fairs I've visited in that they are a permanent structure located right in the middle of the Twin Cities. That's how you know this is serious business.
This year, as every year, my agenda was food-centric. By early summer a list of new food items is released with accompanying maps so fairgoers can plot their path. Such logistical efforts are vital if you have any hopes of escaping digestive regret. There's a food stall roughly every 10 feet, and everything smells incredible, so to enter without a rigid food strategy all but guarantees a rueful gluttony.
First we headed for the grandstand, where I acquired a "boozy berries and ‘barb trifle" that was everything I'd hoped it would be. (Local food reviewers did not agree, which honestly calls into question their entire credibility as journalists.) Then to the western edge of the fairgrounds to get my husband a local hazy IPA released only at the fairgrounds. Then, after a break to feed our 3-month-old twins (big fans of the fair, by the way — they slept right through it) and buy them a handmade wooden helicopter toy they are far too young to use, we hit up the livestock buildings.
Livestock are a crucial part of any fair experience. The food is a highlight, sure, and I like the tilt-a-whirl as much as anyone, but these are not core to the fair tradition like staring into the eyes of prize-winning livestock. State fairs have their roots in the rhythms of husbandry and harvest, having started as a scaled-up version of county-level agricultural shows. (Our fair is run by the Minnesota Agricultural Society, founded 1854, and directed by delegates from counties statewide as well as trade groups like the Livestock Breeders Association and the Apple Growers Association.) It is these competitions which still serve to bring the whole state together, drawing Minnesotans from the Iron Range to the Driftless Region to show off their rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, horses, goats, pigs, cows, and sheep. The weird chickens are my favorite, with the Miracle of Birth Center — where, if your timing is lucky, you can see a calf enter the world, all legs and eyelashes and slime — running a very close second.
Our baby-imposed schedule kept us from the north wing of the fairgrounds this year, where the tractors, handicraft displays, and butter sculptures may be found, yet these too are fair staples not to be missed. They're the sort of thing I'd have had to be dragged to see as a kid, but now I appreciate the wisdom in the dragging. Like the livestock, they hearken to an older cadence of community, providing a slow and skillful counterbalance to the transitory glitz of fast food and fast rides.
The one element of the fair I am never sad to miss is the politics. The Democratic-Farm-Labor Party, Minnesota's Democratic affiliate, has a large outpost near the main gates, as does President Trump's 2020 campaign. Though both booths certainly had their visitors, by fair standards, they were practically empty.
This is as it should be. Presidential candidates love to make an appearance at state fairs, co-opting disinterested crowds into vibrant campaign photos, but theirs is an unwelcome presence. The fair is not a place for politicking and argument, for campaign merch and its inherent reminder of the divisiveness of our national politics. The fair is an oasis where we compete over ponies and pumpkins and needlepoint, not votes. It's a place for the small patriotism of home, not the big patriotism of power.
And speaking of politicians, Minnesota's Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D), who has repeatedly sold out our fair in a sad attempt to suck up to Iowa caucus-goers, should be banned from the fairgrounds outright. The Minnesota State Fair is not just "different." It is measurably best, as even an East Coast transplant like me can recognize.
Iowans, of course, are welcome to feel the same about their state fair. In fact, that's exactly how it works: Any fair loyalty is legitimate; this hapless political waffling is not. Were I an Iowan, I would reject Klobuchar not for her compliments of my fair but for her unwillingness to go to bat for her own. If the sheer joy of our state's great get-together does not burst upon you as you look at the teeming masses of the Midway and chomp into fried whatever on a stick — well, I'm not sure you're getting the whole Minnesota thing, let alone the Oval Office.