Exploring means sampling some old favorites and finding the hidden gems.
My husband Gary likes to say, "The State Fair is like the Louvre. You can't see it all in one day."
This is why I married him, among other reasons.
Our time together has taught me two important State Fair lessons: Treat yourself to more than one day there, and pick worthy companions when you go. Knowing you'll be back gives you the freedom to explore at a relaxed pace, seek out the hidden gems and, most importantly, eat more food. A worthy companion, in my opinion, possesses stamina, no fear of crowds and an eagerness to try chocolate-covered bacon. Their own supply of Lipitor, with extra to share, is a bonus.
Whether it's our first or seventh day at the fair, Gary and I always start our adventures near the Dairy Building, where the Pork-Chop-on-a-Stick stand outside and the Dairy Goodness booth inside offer the protein and calcium necessary to fuel our journey. Gary, a traditionalist, always gets the strawberry malt. I fancy myself a gourmand and order blackberry.
Whichever fruit you pair with Minnesota's finest soft serve, be sure to consume it while admiring the Princess Kay of the Milky Way butter sculptures nearby. There's a good chance you'll find sculptor Linda Christensen and one of the twelve dairy princesses bundled up in the chilled glass booth, where Christensen has been transforming giant blocks of butter into lovely princess visages for 40 years.
Next we cross Underwood Street and enter the Ag-Hort Building, a cornucopia of regional pride. I recommend a cup of the season's first fresh-pressed apple cider before you meander over to the crop art exhibit. Minnesota is to crop art as Greenwich Village was to abstract expressionism. Unlike a Jackson Pollock painting, however, you won't look at these masterpieces and think to yourself, "I could have made that."
The State Fair appeals to Minnesotans' quest for self-improvement. Cosgrove Street, just to the east of the Ag-Hort Building, is home to the Creative Activities, Education, 4H and Fine Arts buildings and topped off with the Progress Center Eco Experience, making it the "Path of Good Intentions."
This stretch of the fair always overstimulates my tendency to create "to do" lists. I am inspired by the craftsmanship of others to learn how to knit, quilt and draw, and convinced by earnest exhibitors to buy a rain barrel.
My favorite place to reflect on the new and improved me is the Farmers' Union Café on Dan Patch Avenue. Their "coffee-on-a-stick" is an iced delight from St. Paul's Grand Ole Creamery. Once the caffeine kicks in, I remember how unlikely it is that I will ever learn to knit.
This seems like a good time to embrace those parts of the fair that never change and couldn't possibly be improved, such as Ye Old Mill, which has been around since 1913.
As we sail into the tunnel of love, I like to imagine we're sitting in the same boat that carried F. Scott Fitzgerald from childhood to adolescence in his short story, "A Night at the Fair." I doubt the same dioramas of painted plywood gnomes and dancing state symbols were around to delight Fitzgerald as they now do us, but it's comforting to know that a century of Minnesotans have squealed with mock fear and stolen a kiss in this musty old ride, just as Gary and I do year after year.
Hungry for more history, we'll often head next towards Heritage Square. But first, we stop along the way to admire the native fish in the pond outside the DNR building. Then the ramp on Carnes Street, across from the DNR building, invariably lures us up to the second floor of the grandstand, guiding us, like the Yellow Brick Road, to an Emerald City of fanciful gadgets and colorful characters.
As dusk approaches, I like to venture into the animal barns. They are less crowded in the early evening, and you and the animals can commiserate in your mutual fatigue. Gary and I never tire of taking each other's picture in front of the "Champion Hen" and "Champion Old Male" signs.
Our day at the fair draws to a close with a stroll through the Midway. By the light of day the Midway is merely a place to go on rides and play games, but at night it is a shimmering, mysterious wonderland. Here I am the Queen of Whac-a-Mole. With duly acquired stuffed animal in tow, we exit the Midway for the roasted corn booth to savor one last taste of summer.
A hint of autumn in the air cools the hot butter dripping from our chins as we hop on the Sky Glider and float towards the parking lot, admiring the splendor and majesty of the Minnesota State Fair below and wishing that nothing would ever change.
Poll: Which of Rick Nelson’s must-try foods at the State Fair do you most want to try?