It was the definition of a delicious irony. On my right was the KARE’s Health Fair 11 at the Fair, at which fairgoers could have their body mass measured and be screened for things like high blood pressure and diabetes.
On my left was the deep-fried Twinkie stand.
Perhaps, I wondered, the organizers of the Minnesota State Fair thought the folks at the latter could use the services of the former. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence. I wonder if anyone at the health fair booth noticed that, or if the Twinkie folks had time amidst a constant line to consider the confluence.
As far as I could tell, the State Fair veterans walking by didn’t make any mind of the situation. But as a newbie, a State Fair virgin if you will, I stood in the afternoon sun on Dan Patch Avenue near Cooper Street in awe of it all.
That’s where this story ends. Let me back up and tell you how it begins.
It’s hard to describe the feeling when walking in to the Great Minnesota Get-Together for the first time, realizing within moments of my 9 a.m. arrival that there was literally too much to see and do before the last parts of the Mighty Midway closed at midnight.
I figured that initial bewilderment might occur. I figured some weeks ago that I’d have to ask Minnesotans I know for advice as a 27-year-old Fair first timer. What I didn’t figure was their reaction to my question. Or rather, to the premise of my question.
“Really?” Rep. John Kline asked when I told him two weeks ago. Kline had a look on his face like I’d just told him my grandmother was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. “Oh my gosh, this is a terrible thing” (which, admittedly, that must be).
“Just go and soak it in,” Minnesota’s senior Republican advised. “There’ll be plenty of noise about whatever the latest food on a stick is — whatever that is, get that.”
“And then just wander around and look, see what’s going on. Look at the people.”
This may be the “on a stick” capital of America, if not the world. That sentence won’t be news to anyone who has been to the State Fair, but beggars certain logistical questions for those who haven’t. Like, just how does one get macaroni and cheese to stay on a stick? These things aren’t readily apparent to the outside world.
And then one comes to the ultimate question: If one is to have something on a stick, then what is one to have? Good question — so I asked around.
Nancy Pelosi favors the pork chop on a stick. That’s what I’m told anyways by Rep. Collin Peterson, who took her to Farm Fest where she sampled the delicacy and “loved it.” Peterson, the House Agriculture chairman, seconded the House speaker’s motion.
Sen. Al Franken has a sweet, buttery spot that can only be filled by corn on the cob. Staffers tailing him Sunday explained he “absolutely” has to have one each time he goes to the Fair. He goes several times a year.
Fairgoers I talked to generally know what they’re going to do once they get there. They always ride the giant slide, or maybe they always start the day at the Miracle of Birth Center. They’re at home here; Minnesotans native not just to the state but to these streets.
This event is so Minnesota that even the out-of-state cuisine seems out of place.
The key lime pie on a stick, frozen and shipped from Florida and fastened to the stick by a hard chocolate shell, tasted like a freeze-dried imitation its namesake. The Scotch egg stayed on its stick only momentarily, as if it had somehow recognized how unusual it was to have even been on a stick in the first place.
The most Minnesota food I could think of at that moment happened to be just a few stalls north of the Scotch eggs. Hotdish. On a stick.
The vendor at Ole and Lena’s explained that the whitish tartar-looking sauce beside this deep-fried masterpiece was in fact cream of mushroom. I don’t know how that mixed with the tater tots, the meat or the fry breading holding it all together. It just did.
On the Washington Metro subway, a crowd this large would smell of rotted lutefisk and grow agitated by the second. Here, I accidentally bumped into a fellow fairgoer as I noshed on stick hotdish and that person apologized. Minnesota nice indeed.
Some steps later, I found myself standing on the corner of Dan Patch and Cooper with food on a stick and, as Kline advised, looked at the people.
There were moms carrying toddlers in the sort of kiddie contraptions that cost more than dinner for two at a nice restaurant — you know, the ones that look like an offshoot of some NASA technology. There were dads toting giant fuzzy animals in colors unlikely to be found in the wild. Kids of all ages with mustard on their faces who forgot for a day that wiping their hands on their jeans is generally frowned upon outside this summer wonderland.
Down the way, politicians competed for attention with gel-haired pitchman hawking ShamWows. They’re similar in some ways — both product and pol promise to clean up the messes others make with far more ease than is ever realized, but people keep buying (and voting) enough that they’ll both be back next year.
Just a short walk from my position one could see a newborn baby calf and a prized cow, drink all the milk your tummy could stomach for just $1 while chewing on chunks of hot grilled beef — on a stick, of course. Walt Disney might call it the circle of life.
So there I stood in awe of this scene. It was weird. It was perfect. This was my first time here. It won’t be my last.