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Minnesota State Fair through foreign eyes.

Why write an international web log on the Minnesota State Fair? Out there in the wider world beyond the United States there is a lot of information on this country but not always a lot of understanding. Even in the United States this part of the Mid-West is probably not well understood. I cannot claim to be knowledgeable either about Minnesota or of the State Fair but I know a good time when I have it. It is the fate of a super-power (the super-power) to be criticized for what it does as well as what is does not do. To that extent, it cannot win. Hollywood’s images of violence and the confused messages from television as well as the disaster of the war in Iraq all add up to create an entirely negative image of the United States on the part of many people. How about the Minnesota State Fair as antidote to at least some of that?

On Saturday, in the company of two (American) friends I spent seven very full hours at the State Fair. Many have been curious since as to my reaction and it was suggested to me that I put my views in writing. I suppose my first thoughts (as I order them in writing) concern the huge scale of the Fair. The showground is, as you may imagine, vast and, of course, very well-organized. The crowds poured in the whole day long. They were good-natured, well-ordered and happy. Even in the seven hours at the Fair, I was not able to see everything though I made sure that my ‘fantasy purchase’ ideas were checked out (like the Harley Davidson Stand and the SUV displays, particularly the new Toyota). My policy is to leave something for another visit, no matter where I go now. Too many trips when younger have been spoiled by trying to see and do everything. It is just not usually possible to see everything, especially at the Minnesota State Fair.

Another feature that is striking is the fried food, especially fried food on a stick. As I am clearly a fastidious foreigner, I am expected to look straight down my nose at the general and universal fry-up. It tends to be forgotten that I am from Glasgow in Scotland where the fry-up is, unfortunately, a way-of-life. I ate cheese curds (deep fried soft white cheese) with the best of them but did not in fact eat anything on a stick. The smell of a vat of oil in which ‘fried dough’ (reminiscent, I suppose, of ‘fat-cakes’ from Southern Africa) was being cooked put me off all other fried stuff. One of my friends assured me that the ‘walleye on a stick’ (a white fish from Lake Superior) was simply ‘delicious’. Deep-fried ‘Twinkies on a stick’ I am sorry to say were probably invented in Glasgow earlier and under another name! Demand was brisk for ‘food-on-a-stick’ throughout the day. Every year there is a competition of sorts over what else can be fried and impaled. Even the health conscious seemed to take a perverse pride in eating anything deep-fried. It is simply the thing to do.

Although the Fair is vast, it draws in urban and rural communities from all over Minnesota and so maintains its human dimension. To enter an exhibit at the Fair (a result of winning in lower-level competitions throughout Minnesota) is a huge mark of distinction and a matter of deep personal and community pride. It was wonderful to see, for example, the results of hundreds of hours of patch-work quilt-making. The skill and eye for pattern and colour in the prize-winning quilt exhibits is amazing. The same can be said for skills in cake-making, flower growing and arranging, prize vegetable growing and much more. The exhibits speak to a body of rural knowledge and purposeful activity (the winters are long) that is humbling to contemplate. Young people are also drawn in (through, for example 4H) and are provided with a platform from which to speak to the wider world beyond their remote farm or small town.

At the heart of the Fair is the State’s agricultural sector. I gazed happily on sheep (I doubt if I have been that close to a sheep since childhood), on chickens and on cows. The pampered and petted cows were being taken in and out of the show ring, handled skillfully by youngsters from the farms. I once researched cattle herding and cattle accumulation strategies in the Kalahari areas of Botswana and wondered what cattle owners from the Western Kweneng would have thought as one potential prize winner after another was led to judgment. Each beast would have sustained a long, animated and informed conversation. I regretted that I could only look and judge with ignorance. I resorted to aesthetics. One heifer with a coat of the deepest, darkest burgundy caught my eye. The judge giving the educational talk in the sheep pen was much more to the point. He talked about the meat potential of each animal that was being shown. Farming is, despite all of that pampering, an unsentimental business.

So what did I see in the Minnesota State Fair? I saw an honest pride in community and in individual human effort whether down of the farm or in the work room or in the effective organization of feeding vast numbers of people quickly and tastily and without rancor. I saw a celebration of Minnesotan living and the Minnesotan environment in all seasons and an affirmation of the (on-the-whole) quiet ways that Minnesotans have fun. I saw people taking pride in Minnesotan ways of doing things. Even the police trying to keep the space clear for the colorful parade managed to keep order, in contrast to the Hollywood images, with little more than robust good humor. I recommend to those outsiders who harbor only negative thoughts of the United States (or of the Mid-West), go and spend a good-natured day at the Minnesota State Fair. Go early and stay long!