Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Fair Day Off

Even though preparations for the upcoming Labor Day weekend at Fest are keeping me busy (and will now require some all-nighters), I couldn't help but give a day away this week to the great Minnesota get-together: the Minnesota State Fair.

The State Fair runs every August for (I think) twelve days, ending on Labor Day. And because my weekends are devoted to the Renaissance Festival at the same time, I have to fit it in where I can.

I like it more every year I'm there. 

James, as it turns out, has never really been a fan, but I like to think that going there with me is changing his attitude. We can now spend an entire day there together from dawn until dark, and he'll patiently look at every quilt and 4-H project I choose to ponder. However, the one thing I think he could happily live without is the Annual Touring of the Animal Barns....

It doesn't matter that I've never really lived on a farm or even spent a moment slopping pigs or milking goats. In my head I see myself as a Farmgirl. So spending long and happy moments touring the noisy animal barns is one of my State Fair pleasures. And because James would be meeting me there after half a day of work, I decided this year to get to the Fair way before he did so I could see the barns at my leisure without having to park him on a bench to read the paper.

It was a great idea.

However, I slept through my morning alarm, then missed my first bus to the State Fair shuttle point, and then was annoyed and dismayed to discover that what was supposed to be a shuttle point wasn't.... Hours that could've been spent seeing farm animals were rapidly slipping away.

And I was sitting on a bus bench feeling dang sorry for myself when I observed a couple getting out of their car across the way. Both were in straw cowboy hats and sensible shoes -- definitely Fair folk. They approached a bus driver, asked a question, seemed surprised by the answer, and began returning to their car. A lightbulb went off in my head and I quickly caught up with them. And -- bless their hearts! -- they were willing to give me a ride to the real shuttle point. And soon we were all en route to the Fair.

Ruth and Sam Stuart are from Carlton, Minnesota. They are definitely kindred spirits. As we rode together they told me stories about everything from beekeeping to hand-woven rugs to their travels around the country. I was fascinated. As we got closer to the Fair, I suddenly realized that the crazy mishaps of my morning were far away in my memory, and because of these delightful Minnesotans I had a smile on my face once more. (Thank you, Ruth and Sam for saving the day!)

As it turned out, James had arrived at the Fair just moments before me. We began our day in the International Bazaar by checking out the merchandise in the Irish on Grand booth and sampling some new (to us) State Fair foods. First on the list were the lamb 'fries' at the Holy Land Deli (tasty), and then the beef tongue caramelos at Sonora Grill (not so much....). And over the course of the day we sampled smoked pig ankles, SPAM curds, and bacon ice cream, as well as a host of other State Fair faves like Pronto Pups and cheese curds.

I'm the world's best customer, I swear. As James and I strolled through the Grandstand I couldn't help but yearn for the Singer sewing machines and the Hammond organs, the hanging hammocks and the Sham-Wow, the mop that picks up pet hair and the slicey-dicey kitchen device that does everything from creating serving boats out of watermelons to turning radishes into roses. I listened to all the sales pitches with eyes filled with wonder until James gently led me (and his wallet) a safe distance away.

I stood in line for a free tube of pickle-flavored lip balm. I wore a paper mosquito hat so tall that it kept bumping into things. I dodged strollers, trod through manure, watched strands of fluffy cotton candy float away on the breeze, smelled barbecue and heard calliope tunes. I saw beauty queens carved in butter, ate chocolate-covered bacon, drank cold Culligan water, listened to banjo pickers. I shook hands with the Vita-Mix lady who sold me my appliance over 15 years ago and told her that I still use it every day. I collected literature on how to raise rabbits and how to compost kitchen scraps in a bin under the sink. I ate more ice cream in one day than I have all year! I thought my feet were going to fall off....

I ate my first ear of sweet corn of the summer. I took pictures of art made entirely of seeds. I saw the state's largest pumpkin, weighing over a thousand pounds! I studied the workings of a steam-powered pencil sharpener. I delightfully toured (and by 'toured' I mean entered and barely turned around in) some of the smallest little camping trailers ever, and I imagined myself going to Renaissance Festivals and living in one of them.

And then at the end of the day I finally got to the Poultry Barn.

I like all the barns, but the Poultry Barn is one of my faves. (No surprise: the Horse Barn is another, but by the time James and I get to the Fair, most of the stalls seem empty....) James found a bench for resting his feet and closing his eyes, and I made a bee-line for the chickens.

I love the big and fluffy ladies that I'm sure would take my head off if there wasn't a cage between us, but my favorites are the little ones that look like they just stepped out of a painting of an old English cottage. I'm a big fan of Runner Ducks. And even though I'm sure they're nasty as all get-out, I can't help but love what I like to call the Mother Goose geese....

All the while I was in the Poultry Barn, I kept encountering an elderly man in a suit and a straw cowboy hat. A young woman was pushing him in a wheelchair. They stopped at every cage and he whispered to each bird. It made me think about farms and the farmers who love them. It reminded me of the story Sam Stuart shared with me of his 80-year-old friend who was offered millions for the acreage surrounding his homestead but stubbornly wouldn't sell. It made me think of the farms that are disappearing.... And my inner Farmgirl, stuck here in the 'burbs with a deep yearning for wide open spaces, kind of wept for him.

It was dark and the Midway was just gearing up by the time James and I called it quits. My old legs were screaming and it was a blessed pleasure to climb into the car for the ride home. And on the way I thought about beekeeping and cornfields, and the logistics of bringing a thousand-pound pumpkin to the Fair, and how many hours it must take to recreate the Last Supper out of millet and mustard seeds. And I thought about kids and their cows, and old men remembering chickens, and old women submitting shining Mason jars full of pickles and rainbow-hued jellies so pretty they look like stained glass. And I wondered if there are any little kids nowadays who even get to see a farm let alone live on one or have grandparents who still live on one. And I thought about the Stuarts and how lucky I was to meet them and hear their stories.

It was a day full of happy and sad and wonder and awesome.

It was just a normal day at the Fair.


  1. Kindred spirit, right down to the Poultry Barn fave - unless there are exotic bunnies! My dad used to drop us kids off on his way to work, and we did Machinery Hill first, cuz it was the only open attraction at that hour. He'd pick us up when even the Midway closed down. And it was *never* enough!

    Elizabeth M.

    1. I would've LOVED to attend as often as that when I was a kid. I was so horse crazy back then that all I wanted to do was hang out at the Hippodrome and hope to sneak in to a horse show. But if there were other kids in our group we'd have to spend the entire day on the Midway, my least favorite area of the Fair.

      I'm so lucky that James indulges me. And I even think he's beginning to enjoy the Great Minnesota Get-Together. :)