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A Minnesota Tradition

Written by Hannah of Rise and Shine.
It's an exciting time in Minnesota when we hit the dog days of summer. Our dog days are not defined by a period of lethargy. When we aren't [whining about] mowing the lawn or squeezing in every possible drop of fun before the snow flies, we are bringing in the harvest. The county fairs are in full swing and we put in for our vacation days to migrate the short distance to our own state fair. The roots of farming and agriculture run deep here. It's no surprise our Minnesota State Fair has grown to be one of the biggest in the country, 2nd only to Texas, with a current annual attendance of nearly 1.8 million people.

Exhibitors fill the expansive grounds with their best handicrafts and craftsmanship, proudly displaying the fruits of their farms and gardens. Fair goers fill a day walking many miles in their best broke-in tennies and spend a small fortune to sample some of the 500 food offerings. We might try one of the 40 new foods of this year. Beef tongue tacos with bacon ice cream for dessert, perhaps? Or some local fine dining such as Sweet Corn Chowder, Heirloom Tomato Salad and Lake Superior Smoked Whitefish. We may have a loyalty to some of the 70 different items on a stick. Maybe we'll pass on the sickeningly sweet chocolate cookie dough deep fried on a stick. On second thought add an order of all-you-can-drink milk and count us in. Then we'll head over to get our picture taken biting into our deep fried Twinkie on a stick, dropping powdered sugar and strawberry sauce down our shirts as we do. And surely we'll grab a Pronto Pup at some point, very often opting for that and other foods from a prescribed list we have refined over the years.

From the streets of the grounds we can sniff out and track down the foods that promise to curb any possible craving. We trust it will and if not, at least we can add it to our list of things we've tried. We eat like hobbits; breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses...all day and into the night. Bathing suit season no longer plays a factor. In the brief pauses between meals we fill our arms with prizes and freebies gathered in the Grandstand from vendors hawking their goods, often live and captivating, a la Ron Popeil.

The State Fair is a goldmine for people watchers. Politicians and protesters, marketers and media personalities, carnies, tourists and Minnesota natives. From the tacky to the wacky, crammed onto this 320 acre plot we are a sight to be seen and it's pure delight for all but our feet at the end of the day.

For many of us, the State Fair isn't a one day affair; it's a year in the making. Those of us lucky enough to be entrenched in the culture of FFA or 4-H view the world in our own particular way. We see life from an angle of farm-to-table cooking that you won't find in the pages of Bon Appétit. And we see the magnificence of the State Fair beyond cheese curds and fresh squeezed lemonade.

4-H started as a rural youth organization with a goal of offering farm kids the hands-on learning that schools could not provide. It soon grew to be a way to introduce new agricultural technology to adults, through the enthusiasm of their children. The 110 year old program promotes citizenship, leadership, innovation and experiential learning. 4-Hers aren't a dying breed. The program is the world's largest youth organization with nearly 7 million members and its scope has expanded beyond rural farm families and into urban and suburban communities in every state across the nation. I was a 4-H kid from the age of 6 through my teens.

We didn't live on a dairy farm or raise sheep, swine or horses, but had several acres to accommodate a sprawling vegetable garden and modest barns for our chickens and rabbits, which we raised both for meat and for show. For me, 4-H was more than hauling my best hen to the fair and back home with my little blue ribbon. It was a year round investment that I recall with great affection. My 4-H club, the Long Lake Beavers, was comprised of children ages 5 to 19 and there were 15 4-H clubs within my county. Our club of 20 kids gathered monthly at a town hall to hold a meeting in the style of Robert's Rules of Orders (“All in favor say 'Aye!' All opposed 'Neigh!' bang 'Motion passed!'”). Our club president, vice president, treasurer and secretary were children and were elected to their offices by us. Our folks sat passively on benches encircling the room which resembled a one room school house. The exception being my dad, our adult club leader. He had a place at the front table where he sat gently, albeit excitedly, guiding the proceedings.

What came out of these meetings was an impressive array of event planning to fill a year. As a club we formed committees to organize volunteer efforts such as rural community recycle centers or concession stands at livestock shows. We organized a summer softball league and a competing musical theater troupe. We practiced for a Robert's Rules competition at the county courthouse.

In 4-H, as individuals, each club member signs up for any number of “projects” each year, which begin in September and end the following August with one's annual county fair. Or if we capture the coveted purple ribbon, our journey ends at the State Fair. My projects were in the areas of art, handicrafts, photography, baking, rabbits, poultry and gardening. Some years most of those and some years all. Throughout the year, I toyed with ideas, tended to my vegetables, bred and raised animals and refined my idea of showmanship for each of my county fair entries. Carefully written records were kept; demonstrations and presentations were given before my 4-H club. Procrastination ensued and anxiety built as our county fair fast approached. For each of my entries on exhibition day, I waited in line before approaching the judges. Not only will my entry be examined but I will also be interviewed and required to be an expert on my specimen and the craft at hand. I will know before I leave the judge's table whether I receive the lowly white ribbon, disappointing red or satisfactory blue. It's later, days later if I recall, that the blue ribbon entries are pitted against each other and a purple is awarded to the cream of the crop in every category. I am never present when the ribbon is pinned to my entry but I find it several times in my 4-H career under the warm glow of my parents' pride. From here, I will not have much time before my trip to the State Fair where I will live in the dormitories above the 4-H building for 4 days and nights. My days will be filled with seminars, judging, people watching, going broke on the midway and some true farm-to-table meals in the 4-H cafeteria. Though in this restaurant I will pay $2.50 for my burger basket and for dessert I eat soft serve so fresh and creamy it makes me swoon. To order this extra special treat, I will wait in a long and winding line in the dairy building next to a glass cooler housing a larger than life-size replica of this year's dairy mascot, Princess Kay of the Milky Way, carved entirely out of butter. We don't find this tradition odd in the least. In fact we adore it and, really, we just want our soft serve.

I never win a purple ribbon at the State Fair and rarely a blue. But I come to know the fair in a way that feels like a hometown without the trappings of teenage angst that you can't wait to escape when you're finally out on your own. To the contrary, I can't wait to get back.

I will visit the fair again this year and next; narrating my fond memories for my husband and tearfully describing for my young daughters the rare wholesome being that was my dad, a grandpa they will never have the pleasure to know but through my words and actions. We will enthuse at this year's new sights and foods. But our truest pleasure will come from our time in the animal barns, creative arts buildings and the 4-H building. We will marvel at the work that goes into the hand stitching, the carpentry and preserves that are beautifully arranged and lovingly canned from the gardens of our neighbors. We will sample beer and wines made in our own beautiful state of Minnesota. And we will savor salted deep fried garden vegetables (on a stick) and chase them with glasses of fresh cold milk that came very recently from happy cows.