I was born and raised in Kansas and didn’t even know if Kansas had a state fair until I looked it up online earlier today. It turns out there is one, but I never went. I did go to the Missouri State Fair once and everyone wore cowboy hats and I bought a handmade leather wallet but I can’t remember if there were rides or animals or food. Clearly, the state fairs of my youth did not have the same power and pull as The Great Minnesota Get-Together.
There is something about the Minnesota State Fair that seems to tap into the collective unconscious of Minnesotans and unite people across the state and, though I’ve now lived here for 23 years, I still don’t understand the passion people have for the fair.
Neither my partner nor I went to the state fair until we had kids. Shortly after our son turned one, people regaled us with tales about warm chocolate chip cookies and farm animals and Machinery Hill and I will admit that it sounded like something our son would love. So, we got up early one morning and dragged him and the stroller and diaper bag to the fairgrounds. He loved the cookies and milk and seemed mildly interested in what he could see of the pigs and cows in their pens but he was unimpressed with the seed art and displays of freakishly large vegetables. He got tired of it all pretty quickly and we went home early.
The following year, we took him again and brought along a friend’s kid and did all the same things, though they were big enough to sit on the tractors that time. We snapped lots of cute pictures before everyone got crabby — us included — and we had to leave, wrangling the hot and cranky toddlers back into the car. After we got home and put the kids down for a nap, my partner and I quietly confessed to each other that we didn’t like the state fair at all.
Despite that, we kept going sporadically over the years, taking our son and then our daughter once she came along. Our last trip to the fair was in 2009 because, in 2010, we asked our kids if they wanted to go and they both emphatically said “no.” We silently rejoiced.
It has taken me a few years to understand why I hate the state fair but I can now sum it up in two words: crowds and excess.
One of the benefits of getting older is figuring out who you are and I have finally figured out that I am a person who does not like crowds, especially crowds mixed with the hot summer sun. I don’t enjoy moving en masse through the streets of the fairgrounds like cattle being shuttled into the cattle barn. I don’t want sweaty people rubbing up against me as we all jostle for position so that our kids can see some poor old sow squeezing out some piglets. I don’t want to wait in long lines in full sun just to use the bathroom or buy an overpriced bottle of water. Add to that the din of thousands of people in conversation and it is all too much. I would rather go to a local restaurant that is cool and quiet and eat food off of a plate than go to the fair and frantically yell, “WHERE ARE THE KIDS?” only to see them whisked away in a stream of people wearing paper pig ears and eating food on a stick.
The first time I went to the fair I was excited to see the butter heads because I’d heard about them and can appreciate oddities. I will drive miles out of the way on a road trip to see things like the Corn Palace or a giant muskie statue or even a ball of twine. Life-sized heads made of butter seemed like something I would love. But as I stood outside the refrigerated dairy case and stared at the heads with the lifeless eyes, I didn’t find them fascinating at all. They seemed more like symbols of excess in our culture.
That excess is on display everywhere at the fair — from Princess Kay’s likeness carved into 90 pounds of butter to the mounds of trash and waste to the foods that are already high in saturated fat, battered and then deep-fried. Walk through the fairgrounds and you’ll see examples of almost every negative stereotype of American culture. So, rather than go and judge the deep-fried candy bars and mac-and-cheese cupcakes frosted with cheese whiz, I choose to stay home.
I know there is more to the state fair than what I have experienced. I have friends who submit art and make jam and I understand the draw of such competitions and support them wholeheartedly. But I’ve made peace with the fact that I won’t go back to the fair. This week, we were talking with the kids and the fair came up in relation to the early start date for the Minneapolis public schools. Our son said, “I just don’t get it.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.