The first of an expected 2 million visitors passed through the gates of the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday, kicking off a 12-day festival that local foodie Andrew Zimmern has called “the single greatest party on planet Earth.”

Fairgoers may think they’ve come to quaff Uffda Ale, munch on turducken and snag a free tube of Traffic Cone lip balm.

But what they’re really after, it turns out, is togetherness. Memories. And a sense of who they are as Minnesotans.

Long before we discovered our love of the Great Minnesota Get-Together in Falcon Heights, humans were gathering to mark the harvest season, find out what’s new in the world — and just plain have fun.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate family and community,” said Lee D. Baker, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University. “These festivals and rituals are similar everywhere, but Americans adapt them for a particular context.

“But the basics are the same: the celebration, the revelry, the making of memories, the marking of seasons.

“It becomes sacred in a kind of weird way — secularly sacred, if you will.”

Minnesota’s State Fair began more than 160 years ago, when most Americans lived on farms, and for decades it was solidly oriented toward agriculture. But farming and fun have always coexisted at the fair.

“Even at the beginning it wasn’t strictly about agriculture,” said Jerry Hammer, the fair’s chief executive. “In 1855, they did a hot-air balloon launch. They had marching bands. They were selling pianos.”

By the 1920s — when, for the first time, a majority of Americans lived in cities — the urban delights of the fair were well established. In 1928, St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald published a story in the “Saturday Evening Post” titled “A Night at the Fair.” Fitzgerald wrote of young men and women trying to connect at the Minnesota State Fair amid the distractions of the Ferris wheel, Ye Old Mill, the penny arcade and the motorcycle daredevils.

Steer gets star treatment

Yet agriculture remains a crucial element of the fair, even as only 1.5 percent of Americans today live on farms. Thousands of 4-Hers from every one of Minnesota’s 87 counties will descend on the fairgrounds, many of them sleeping in bunk beds in the 4-H building — and sometimes in the stalls with their animals.

Among them will be 17-year-old Branstyn Peterson of Gibbon, a town of 770 residents in Sibley County about 85 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. Peterson raises pigs, poultry and cattle on his family’s farm outside of town; he’s shown an animal of one kind or another at the State Fair every year since he was in 6th grade.

This year his entry will be Rocky, a 1,400-pound Simmental beef steer. Rocky gets star treatment on the Peterson farm, with daily washing, brushing and conditioning; on hot summer days, he naps in an air-conditioned room in the barn.

Peterson’s parents, Daryl and Marilee, met as competing 4-Hers exhibiting chickens at the Sibley County Fair. (She won.) For Christmas last year, they gave their son a double-barreled, industrial-strength blow dryer to better groom his steer.

Hammer, the fair’s CEO, said the fair’s involvement with agriculture and food has become more about education than production.

“You know the old joke that people think chocolate milk comes from brown cows?” he said. “The fair’s role now has evolved to the point that we’re explaining where food comes from. We offer an opportunity to meet the small percentage of folks who feed us.”

To that end, the young 4-H members who exhibit their animals are encouraged to be good ambassadors, said Brad Rugg, who has directed 4-H programs at the fair for the past 26 years.

“We’ve been consistent with the theme of wanting to educate consumers about food, and there’s no better way than through the kids,” Rugg said. More than 200 youngsters will be giving demonstrations during the fair, both in the livestock barns and at the 4-H building.

Hundreds more will exhibit projects that may have little or nothing to do with agriculture: photography, technology, art, music. In addition to showing Rocky, Peterson also will exhibit a table that he built. His 4-H experience, he said, has benefited him in a variety of ways.

“I’ve learned a lot about leadership,” he said. “I feel like I’m more involved and engaged in school, and I can handle a variety of activities.”

Saying goodbye to summer

Much of the livestock exhibited at the fair will eventually be eaten. Even Rocky the steer, for all the care that went into raising him, will be sold, perhaps to be turned into next year’s steak-on-a-stick.

And the 98.5 percent of us who don’t farm will enjoy agriculture through Pronto Pups, butter heads and crop art.

That’s OK, said Lisa Gabbert, director of the folklore program at Utah State University. Fairs, she said, are one of the few places in our society where domestic arts are celebrated. “It’s taking this ordinary activity of raising a pig and almost elevating it to an art form,” Gabbert said. “Basically, the fair is the only place where you can do that. It’s an opportunity to show off and a way for society to recognize the importance and the beauty of these domestic and agricultural arts.”

Even as Minnesotans enjoy the fair, there’s always a bittersweet recognition that we’re living in the last, blissful days of summer. That’s part of the whole experience, Gabbert said.

“You know that when the fair comes around that everybody’s going back to school,” she said. “Summer vacation is over.”

But 2 million fairgoers won’t let it go without a fight.

“My wife says she has 12 high, holy days,” Hammer noted with a chuckle. “They start at the end of August and end on Labor Day.”