I haven’t been to many festivals this summer; timing just hasn’t worked in my favor. Lucky for me, though, I get to make up for it all by going to the granddaddy of festivals: the Minnesota State Fair, the place that made food-on-a-stick famous. This is my first time at the fair. While I’m looking forward to checking out the food booths, I really have no idea what I’ll be doing between snacks (or meals).
I kept notes throughout the day, pretending each one was a live tweet, and I had hundreds of Twitter followers eagerly waiting for my next brilliant insight, when, in reality, I was the nerd with the notebook stopping at every corner, writing down things to entertain myself. Anyway, here’s a summary of my day.
9:40am: Out of the house and on the way to the free park and ride lot at Roseville High School.
9:45am: Parking lot full at the high school. I drive around the block and find a spot on the street and walk four blocks for the free bus ride to the fairgrounds. Got a free bottle of water from the folks at Grace Church.
10:05am: Just passed the third house with a garage sale. Smart thinking.
10:15am: “Minnesotans for Marriage” has a booth a few blocks from the fairgrounds. Their goal: Ensure that Ole and Sven, Norwegian bachelor farmers who share a 160-acre spread near Willmar, remain bachelors.
10:20am: Arrive at the fair. Pay $12 to get in.
10:25am: Wander around the International Bazaar: Russian matyroshkas (nesting dolls), art glass from Poland, stuffed llamas from Bolivia, Aussie Outback oilskin hats, Hmong folk art, and Roberta’s Unique Gardens. Not sure how Roberta snuck in.
10:45am: Time to eat. I consider it a sign of great resolve that I waited 25 minutes.
10:48am: Digging in to Kushari from Holy Land ($6). What a place to start: lentils, rice, elbow macaroni, fried strips of eggplant, or maybe onions, with a slightly tart and spicy tomato sauce. Tasty. Downside: not on a stick. Did I mention this was a huge serving? I’m just getting started and have to pace myself, so I eat a third of it, then, painfully, toss the rest.
11:04am: At the state fair, it’s never too early for beer, so I’m off to the Summit booth. Opt for a 12 ounce red ale ($4); nice color and nicely hopped.
11:45am: Wandered into the swine barn. Of all the animal pavilions, this one has the foulest smell. And it’s packed. High schoolers, male and female, are guiding pigs back and forth from the pens to the arena. All I see is tomorrow’s pulled pork sandwich.
11:50pm: Several pigs are in the arena with a judge walking around making comments I don’t understand like “it has a classic shape along the spine but I’m not really a fan of short legs and a long snout.” Folks in the audience (and the bleachers are full of swine judging fans) nod their heads in agreement. All of the animal judging events attract big crowds: cows, pigs, horses, even the goats have flocks of fans. Someday I need to understand what the hell this is all about, but watching these animals right now is making me hungry. Better move on.
12:05pm: Sat for a few minutes to watch a pop folk band, Letho and Wright, but it’s boring me so I move on. Refilled my water bottle for the second time.
12:14pm: At the Romberg Senior Center, Jennifer Markey is entertaining a lively crowd with her energetic brand of classic country and honky tonk. By crowd, I mean six people. By lively, I mean they were sitting in chairs instead of lying on stretchers.
12:35pm: Time to eat again. I’m at Harry Singh’s booth in the food pavilion where I opt for Trinidad Doubles ($4). I could bathe in this stuff. A creamy chickpea curry with mild heat layered between two pieces of fried bread. Two for two on the food choices.
1:00pm: Time for the first extended rest. I’m at the English Horse Show in the Warner Coliseum. After the national anthems for Canada and the US, the cantering, trotting, and extended cantering begins. After 30 minutes, I’m falling asleep. Where’s the nap pavilion?
1:35pm: Rather than napping at the horse show, I’m walking around again. There’s a SPAM recipe contest at the Education building, so I’m heading there.
1:42: Just passed the ubiquitous “Music of the Andes” band. McDonalds is at fewer locations than these guys.
1:52pm: Just missed the SPAM contest, but across the street, SPAMville is selling treats like an egg, cheese, and SPAM breakfast sandwich, SPAM burgers, and SPAM curds. I go for the SPAM curds ($5.50), figuring they will have the lowest amount of actual SPAM. The 20 ounce cup I get is overflowing with golden brown nuggets of salty fried bread. They aren’t too bad, actually, especially with ranch dressing. I eat about a third of the nuggets and toss the rest. I can’t resist the t-shirts, either, so I buy two ($25).
2:06pm: Still a little hungry. I’m passing on the teriyaki ostrich on a stick and spaghetti and meatball on a stick. I’m in the mood for something sweeter, so I get lefse stuffed with lingonberry, buttered, of course ($2.75). The tart berries and butter work together surprisingly well. I’m satisfied.
2:13pm: I haven’t seen so many walkers and wheelchairs since my last casino visit.
2:30pm: Missed most of the parade, except for the last marching band and some people dressed as chickens. Seems like a good time for a higher perspective, so I’m riding the Space Tower, a 330-foot spire with a two-level compartment that rotates 360 degrees ($3). Nice views, but when we swing around into the sun it gets stiflingly hot.
2:48pm: Need a beer after that and, lucky for me, I’m right next to the Leinenkugel booth. The Oktoberfest sounds good, but it turns out to be very mild in flavor, which is to say dull ($4 for 12 ounces).
3:00pm: The sun’s out, it’s heating up, and the shirts are starting to come off of guys who should know better. I grab a seat in partial shade and listen to New Orleans-based rocker Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys. Shaw’s got a big voice and is an energetic fiddler. Fun to watch.
3:22pm: The Creative Activities building has a dizzying array of award winning food products and crafts. Ben Schliemann won 1st place in the Great American SPAM Kids’ Championship. There were also unnamed winners for gluten-free baking and vegan baking. All the winning pieces are hidden behind glass like the Crown Jewels, probably because people like me would be tempting to break off a piece to sample.
3:59pm: The fair shows off perhaps the best quality of Minnesotans: remarkable civility; who knew hundreds of thousands of people could occupy the same space without looting and rioting?
4:04: Wandering through the 4H (head, heart, hands, health) Hall. Reminds me of the Science Fair and my failure to win a blue ribbon for my dry cell battery experiment. Time to move on.
4:17pm: At the Fine Arts building. Wow. I’m really impressed with the quality of the art on display: oil paintings, photography, mixed media sculpture, including a wood sculpture by Frederic Cogelow called “A Penny Saved…?” that is always surrounded by a small crowd of folks admiring the astounding detail, especially around the eyes.
5:01pm: Watch guys at the Marines booth trying to prove their manhood and impress their girlfriends by doing pull-ups in front of a small crowd of other guys who think they’re all wimps, a recruiter’s dream.
5:06pm: Next food item: Northwoods Salad on a Stick from Giggles Campfire Grill ($5.50). Cherry tomatoes, mozzarella balls, and basil on a wooden skewer on a bed of orzo, wild rice, bits of mandarin orange, and mixed greens, all drizzled with balsamic vinegar. This is so yummy; I eat the whole thing.
5:16pm: Must be time for a beer. This time I go with the Grain Belt Premium ($3.50 for 12 ounces), which tastes like every other mass produced beer, which is to say it’s palatable as long as it’s very cold. Once it starts to warm a bit, I ditch it.
5:54pm: The beer is making me sleepy, so I stop for a cup of Swedish Egg Coffee ($1.50). Tastes like diner coffee, but less bitter.
6:01pm: Refill my water bottle again.
6:12: Energized enough to walk through the retail booths under the Grandstand. I didn’t know there were so many things I needed to buy: Rock N Roll Jewelry, Swedish clogs, a Sham-wow (buying just one will save $100 in annual paper towel purchases!), steam mop, popsicle makers, a sauna; actually, I’d love the latter but it won’t fit in my backpack.
6:27pm: Passing more food booths, like Famous Dave’s, the place that did for barbeque what Kenny G did for jazz. It makes me hungry, though, so I stop at Tiny Tim Donuts for a bag (the smallest quantity I can get) of little rings of deep-fried sweetness ($4). I eat about half of them, which is more than I should have.
6:43pm: Just passed a guy choking on a chicken wing, probably the “Ghost Wing” from the Winged Things booth. Actually, not so much choking as having an involuntary reflex to gag and dance and curse. I feel less sympathy for him than the guys at the Marines booth.
6:57pm: You’re never far from a beer stand or bathroom at the fair, which is good because now I need both. Back to Summit to try their Oktoberfest ($4 for 12 ounces). I like this better than the Leinie version; Summit’s has a richer flavor, a bit of roasted malt up front and just the right hint of hoppiness to finish.
7:08pm: The Five Hour Energy Drink booth is handing out free samples of crack (just 4 calories!) to the eager masses.
7:21pm: The smoking cessation booth is handing out free water bottles. I don’t smoke, but I want a new bottle, so, after she hands one to the guy next to me, I tactfully say “I want one, too.” I get a plastic “I Quit” model without having to make any pledges (and in spite of my lack of social skills).
7:28: I’ve seen people carrying out ice cream tub-sized vats of cookies. I have no idea where they are getting them. (I find out later they are from Sweet Martha’s Chocolate Chip Cookies. You can get them in the bucket pail size, the washtub size, or the dump truck size; your choice.)
7:38pm: I make my first retail purchase, this one a piece of Hmong folk art in the International Bazaar—a very cool dragon made out of hemp that the woman in the booth was dutifully showing every customer how to twist into any position you desire ($22).
7:40pm: The Belfast Cowboys are on stage now, a nine-piece ensemble from Minnesota with a four piece brass section. Their first song is a cover of Van Morrison’s Moondance. Most of their songs turn out to be covers of Van Morrison songs.
7:59pm: Lots of happiness going around: dancing, swaying, shaking a leg in place like white people do when they want to dance but are embarrassed by their own awkwardness. The band is good but not what I was expecting, so I don’t stick around for the big finish.
8:16: Finding a place to watch Morris Day and the Time. Tonight’s entertainment is aimed at a certain demographic, with a Van Morrison cover band, Morris Day, and Def Leppard at the Grandstand. I look around for Oliver North, a walkman, and people with big hair. Instead I see a bunch of people who look like me.
8:30: Morris Day and the Time begin. It’s Purple Rain all over again, and it makes me happy. I’m tapping my right foot, smiling, and may even shake a leg in place. Morris Day is still a great showman. I just wish I’d gotten here a little earlier for a better view.
8:54: Enough. Hit the wall, time to find my bus and head back, put my feet up and collapse.
So there you have it; my first day at the Minnesota State Fair. I’m a little poorer after spending $106.75 during the day, although I enjoyed every dollar of it. I’m exhausted; I figure I walked at least 15 miles during the day, probably more, which means, according to my extensive Internet research, that I burned about 1600 calories, or about half a bag of Tiny Tim donuts.
Next time I’ll know to get an earlier start if I want one of the prime parking spots. I’ll bring a backpack to carry all the Sham-wows I care to buy. I’ll bring a friend so we can double the number of impaled food items we can sample. And, maybe I’ll get a bucket of those cookies, lie on the grass, and dream about curried chickpea pulled pork Caprese salad hotdish on a stick.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011