A bite of pastry one afternoon triggered a flood of memories that transported the French writer Marcel Proust back to his childhood. So powerful was the experience that it became the basis of a seven-volume literary classic, “Remembrance of Things Past.”
Proust never attended the Minnesota State Fair (that we know of). But for generations of Minnesotans, the scent of a Pronto Pup, the sight of a seed painting or the touch of a baby chick can take them back to their youth.
Memories, psychologists say, are crucial in forming us as individuals and as a society. The annual Great Minnesota Get-Together in St. Paul, which opens Thursday, not only entertains us, excites us and exhausts us — it makes us Minnesotans.
“Our identity is formed by our memories. Traditions and rituals are very important in identifying who we are,” said Bridget Robinson-Riegler, a psychology professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis who specializes in the study of memory. “Families are based on shared experiences, and this is one of those shared experiences we have as a state. The State Fair becomes a collective experience. It gives us a sense of belonging, of togetherness.
“This is what we do as a state. It confirms our identity. It becomes who we are.”
The hot, crowded, noisy, thrilling, greasy, joyous end-of-summer gathering has spawned countless Minnesota memories. We retell our experiences, relive them and pass them down to the next generation.
“My memory is always the big slide,” said Kelly Mills of St. Paul. “Every year, my brothers and sisters and I would go on the big slide. And now I go on it with my kids.”
Emily Yaklich grew up in Maple Grove and attended the fair every year with her parents. She now lives in Minneapolis, but still hits the fair each year with her mom and dad.
“First thing, we always head for the roast corn,” she said.
Those visceral sensations make our State Fair experience even more lasting and powerful, Robinson-Riegler said.
“Smell and taste are big components of memory,” she said. “The more senses involved in an experience, the more memorable it is. And the fair has all those senses.”
In fact, one of her own fair rituals grew out of the intense memory of the first time she tried deep-fried pumpkin pie.
“I had never tasted anything so good,” she recalled. “And so now it’s a tradition [with her husband]. We have to end every night we go with pumpkin pie and cinnamon ice cream.”
Big wheels and bacon
Running the fair requires a respect for those long-standing traditions and a willingness to try something new, said Jerry Hammer, the fair’s general manager. Hammer, 62, who grew up just a block away from the fairgrounds, has been involved with the fair for most of his life.
“I started working at 15 in the greenhouse,” Hammer said. “It’s what all the neighborhood kids did. If you weren’t hanging out here, you were working here.
“So many people, their first date was at the fair, or they met working at the fair, and now they’re bringing their great-grandkids.”
Among the new memory-making attractions this year, Hammer said, is the Great Big Wheel, a 154-foot-tall Ferris wheel sporting half a million computerized lights.
The Eco Experience educational exhibit will feature a taste testing of flights of water from different Minnesota municipal systems. The west end of the grandstand has been transformed into the Veranda, a shopping and dining venue with a restaurant featuring gangster-themed food and drinks in a nod to St. Paul’s Prohibition-era history as a mob haven.
New foods throughout the grounds include the Bowl O’ Dough, which is exactly what it sounds like: scoops of straight-up raw cookie dough. The Bacon Up Pup is a sweet and salty mix of Belgian waffle served on a stick with bacon in the batter, dipped in chocolate, drizzled with maple syrup and topped with whipped cream and bacon.
Fairgoers also will discover deep-fried avocado, cranberry-wild rice meatballs, duck bacon wontons and Memphis Totchos — sliced bananas and sautéed bacon over Tater Tots, topped with peanut sauce.
For sports fans, the State Fair in the State of Hockey will host Lord Stanley’s Cup, the trophy awarded to the National Hockey League’s annual champion. The holy grail of professional hockey will be on display Sept. 1-2 at the NHL Centennial Fan Arena on the north end of the fairgrounds.
Skulls and ‘Popeye’
Lucia Anderson’s fair memory is of a gloomy day turned glorious. Anderson, now a high school senior at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, remembers the last day of the fair when she was 12 or 13 — a day that featured a heavy rainstorm.
“People were leaving, but we still had a lot of ride tickets left,” she said. “Then we saw my aunt, and she gave us her ride tickets. So we went on all the rides in the pouring rain.”
Jeff Passolt, a news anchor at KMSP-TV, recalled the time his older brothers took him to see the freak show on the Midway.
“We saw ‘Popeye,’ this guy who could make his eye pop out of his head,” Passolt said. “And the ‘Alligator Lady’ — she just sat there on the other side of the glass, smoking cigarettes. It was quite a vivid experience for a young kid.”
The birthing barn made a big impression on Melissa Peterman, the Minnesota-bred actress who starred in “Reba” and “Baby Daddy.”
“I love and was horrified by the birthing barn,” she said. “I loved seeing all the animals and their sweet babies. But there’s something a tad disturbing about people eating a pork chop-on-a-stick while watching the mother of a future pork chop give birth.”
Tim Bonham’s best fair memories are of the horse barn. Growing up in Willmar, his family raised and trained Morgan horses. Bonham is still involved with the equestrian world, and he points out the stall where he and the other trainers would hang their clothes.
A farrier once welded a silver dollar on the end of a six-inch nail that the horse barn workers drove into the concrete, laughing when visitors to the barn bent down to try and pick it up. They also had a skull on a string that they’d drop from the rafters.
The fair’s end marks the beginning of the end of summer, and that’s also an important component of memory, Robinson-Riegler said.
“There’s something called ‘peak end theory,’ meaning things that happen at the end have more importance,” she said. “The State Fair is at the end of summer, and it colors our whole summer. Because the fair is so fantastic, it makes the whole summer fantastic.
“The fair is also kind of bittersweet — it’s the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. And when things are bittersweet, we appreciate them even more.”
So savor those fried pickles. Drink in the sights, revel in the sounds. Make some memories.
Future generations of Minnesotans are depending on you.