After a decade of decline — “racial tensions,” newspapers euphemized — the New Jersey State Fair shut down in 1980 and developers snatched up the fairgrounds at fire-sale rates. On the drive home from my great-grandmother’s house in Trenton, my parents would wistfully point out “the old fairgrounds,” a stretch of land hidden from the road by a drab strip mall, situated just where the city they grew up in became the suburb they were raising me in.
I moved to Minneapolis years later, still imagining a state fair as an element of somebody else’s childhood nostalgia, as dull and distant as streetcars or "Howdy Doody." So when my roommate and her boyfriend were abuzz about heading to the Minnesota State Fair, I assumed ironic intent. It was the '90s, after all. If you could flaunt your affectionate superiority to yesterday’s kitsch by photocopying a zine about your favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoons, surely there was some smug joy to be derived from a dated, cornball commemoration of state pride.
I soon learned that no one in Minnesota jokes about their love for the fair. The fair not only neutralizes cheap irony, but it allows you to love so many things that seem grubby and dumb and obnoxious the other 50 ½ weeks of the year. You can’t be disgusted at Americans’ bottomless gluttony while you’re gobbling cheese curds yourself. The summer’s most hated pop songs reveal previously hidden truths of longing and desire as they ring out on the Midway. The thick, slow-moving crowds — frustrating obstacles in any other context — here teach you a new sense of time.
The fair is where clichés are purified into rituals. The annual repetition of your favorite activities — a malt at the dairy barn, a turn on the Giant Slide, a jaunt on Ye Olde Mill — encourages a kind of self-acceptance. It is the one time of year when Minneapolis residents seem wholly at ease with stereotypes about themselves that otherwise make them defensive. Their vowels grow rounder. Their belts loosen. Their pace slackens. They become Minnesotans.
It was as I first watched this process overtake my friends that I recognized that “Minnesota” was something more than a set of arbitrary geographical lines drawn many years ago out of political expediency. I suppose the New Jersey State Fair once played a similar role in my parents’ lives: the annual carnival at the edge of the city, hinting at the farmlands beyond, reminded those Trenton kids that “New Jersey” was a place and that they lived there.
My brother and I would not have that same experience. Our family getaways were to the Jersey shore, the region that New Jerseyans will tell you defines our state character. (That’s why many found the orange-tinted caricatures of MTV’s "Jersey Shore" so insulting.) But in reality there are many Jersey shores. Each seaside town has its own personality, its own history, its own culture. The particular beach you visit — and whether you drive down for the day, rent for the summer or own a home — unmistakably indicates your class and tastes to other New Jerseyans. It’s how we know which New Jersey you’re from.
But no matter where in Minnesota we’re from, we all meet at the same place at the end of summer. Though technically within Falcon Heights, the fair is neutral ground, not urban and not suburban and not rural, a safe vantage point to observe the people who are so much unlike yet also call themselves Minnesotans. Maybe the truest State Fair experience is of watching others experience the State Fair.
That’s why one of my defining State Fair memories is from 2012, a year of vocal political debate statewide. I noticed a family of five, the ideal cast for a minivan commercial, all wearing T-shirts supporting the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. They were at the Giant Sing Along belting out the Village People’s “YMCA,” as gay a hit song as ever to goose straight America’s unsuspectingly uptight little butt, as though they were singing an advertisement for after-school swimming lessons for toddlers. I gawked at them. They gawked back. They were Minnesotans, and I was too.
Each year I become more of a Minnesotan — not only by attending the fair, but by appreciating the fair, as vocally and as enthusiastically as possible. Minnesotans respond the way anxious parents do when you praise their kids — with a polite smile of agreement that barely conceals an inner relief that someone else appreciates what’s truly special about what they love. And then, in gratitude, they accept you as one of their own.
And yet, for all the State Fair rituals I performed annually, there was one I’d never quite gotten around to, the task that awaits every writer who wishes to be a true Minnesotan.
So I wrote this personal essay about what the Minnesota State Fair means to me.
Keith Harris is a writer and immigration attorney who calls Minneapolis home. He gets a sandwich from Turkey to Go every year.