A Newbie at the Minnesota State Fair

When you move to Minneapolis in July, the fact of the Minnesota State Fair is unavoidable.

Locals gush about the 80-plus different foods served on sticks, the beauty queens carved in 90-pound blocks of butter, the giant Ferris wheels and the 1,450-pound swine.

They urge (or, better yet, compel) you to watch the Llama Costume Contest; to avoid the Kidway, whatever that is; to wear comfortable shoes; to take the SkyGlider chairlift instead of the Skyride because it’s better for photos; and to bring along a trusted guide.

As a new resident and a first-time fair attendee, I welcomed the advice — even if I didn’t exactly follow it.

On Thursday, I spent seven solitary hours wandering the fairgrounds with 122,694 others. The Minnesota State Fair is the biggest state fair in the United States by daily attendance, and this year it broke the record for the most visitors to ever attend on opening day. And I broke a personal record, for most junk food consumed in a day.

Butter is in the eye of the beholder.

I was told to dress for a long day of walking in heat and humidity. “It’s like the Mall of America,” a friend said. “But sweaty.”

The heat makes the famous butter sculptures of beauty queens that much more remarkable — you know they wouldn’t last long outside of the 40-degree cooler in the Dairy Building where they are carved. There, finalists from the Princess Kay of the Milky Way contest (a pageant for women who live or work on dairy farms) sit for six to eight hours to have their likeness carved by Linda Christensen, who has been sculpting at the fair since 1972.

Rebekka Paskewitz, a finalist in the competition, held a toothy braces smile while she sat for her sculpture, and later while she waved at her adoring fans. I learned that two of her cousins had previously been named Princess Kay finalists, and that the family planned to take photos of the pageant queens with their three sculptures after the fair. Freezer space must run in the family, as well.

Dairy pageants are far from the only competitions at the Minnesota State Fair. I saw buff men in plaid competing in events like the ax throw, the speed climb and the springboard chop at the Timberworks Lumberjack show. I admired the gigantic pumpkins of the Giant Pumpkin Contest (the winner weighed 1,108 pounds) and Christmas tree No. 14, whose needle retention, scent and conifer shape made it a fan favorite in the Christmas tree competition. I spent a disproportionate amount of time watching fairgoers zoom down a 170-foot-long rainbow-colored Giant Slide.

Some traditions are harder to stomach.

It wasn’t all fun and games. I wandered into the CHS Miracle of Birth Center expecting to witness something uplifting. Instead I found … well … something.

A sow was in the throes of delivering a litter of piglets. There was a man using a forceps-like tool to extract a stuck piglet while the crowd watched with bated breath in the bleachers.

That particular piglet made it out alive, if bloodied, but the next was stillborn and immediately carted away in a plastic bag. My only solace was a little boy who asked, of the pig in labor, “Why are we looking at the butt?”

Searching for something a bit lighter, I took the 360-degree Sky Flyer swing ride and booked a round-trip ticket on the SkyGlider chairlift. Being high up above the fairgrounds afforded half an hour of peace — and a bird’s-eye view of all of the snacks.

I had to skip the deep-fried Twinkies.

The real point of the fair, as I now understand it, is to eat all day long.

I started with a Pronto Pup — essentially a corn dog made with pancake batter — and moved on from there to Mouse Trap cheese curds; deep fried apple pie topped with cinnamon ice cream; a frozen apple cider push-pop; fresh-squeezed lemonade; and a First Kiss apple, a new variety developed at the University of Minnesota that is similar to Honeycrisp but ripens a month earlier.

I skipped the corn on the cob, only because it required an advance ticket purchase, but couldn’t leave without a bucket full of Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies. The company sells a million cookies every day, slinging them out at three different locations in large, overflowing plastic tubs.

One of the best tips I received before going to the fair was to save Sweet Martha’s for last. The bucket holds nearly four dozen cookies and isn’t exactly convenient to carry throughout the day. So, with a too-full stomach and sore feet, I joined a 45-minute line for baked goods.

At one point, I heard a young boy scream exactly what all of us were feeling: “I just want to get cookies and go home!” The day had been long for everyone: the ride engineers, the butter models, the sow, the corn dog fryers and the cookie bakers. So, after I’d collected my bucket from Sweet Martha’s, I went home to rest — and digest.