Reflections on spending a day at a state fair
Wisconsin holds its state fair in West Allis, a close-in suburb of Milwaukee, in the state’s southeast corner. This makes it a more convenient state fair for Chicago’s north suburbanites than our own Illinois state fair in Springfield, so one sees a number of fellow Chicagoans munching on funnel cakes and riding the giant slide every year.
State Fair: it’s not just for farmers anymore.
But even so, it is largely about farmers. The state fair is many things, a microcosm of our people, our commerce, and our culture. Annual attendance for non-competitors may not be imperative, but at least the occasional attendance is a splendid tool for focusing one’s mind on the American experience.
Animals and Agriculture
The business of America is business, as President Coolidge used to say, and the first such business was agriculture. Our first settlers arrived on these shores to grow their own crops and raise their own animals. From farm to ranch, this element of Americana runs coast to coast and border to border.
Just as our sporting franchises have annual bowls, pennants, series, and cups to determine and celebrate their respective best-in-class, so too does the farming and ranching community celebrate their most expert practitioners each year. Folks enter their prize pigs, cows, rabbits and chickens – the biggest, the finest specimens – first at the county level, then at state, to see if they can win the respect of their peers for having produced a product that was peer-reviewed and determined to be among the best.
But the beauty of the state fair is that it’s an open contest. It’s not limited to the farmers themselves; every entry is lined up on display for us city folk to see and learn from.
And learn we do. Suburban parents drive up in their minivans, and bring their children to tour the poultry building, the cattle barn, the horse stables. Our children – children who otherwise only see animals on television or view them through the car windows on a country road – are thus able to appreciate a close-up opportunity to see the source of things that they otherwise identify only with shops and grocery stores.
The leather that produced the baseball and its mitt, the jacket and its matching gloves… the meat that became that steak or fried chicken… the fur that produced the hat, the wool that became a sweater… all these are only known to our suburban and city kids in an abstract way. The State Fair gives our children’s theoretical knowledge a much-needed visual and tactile dimension.
Maybe it doesn’t make us better students, or better accountants or better salesmen, but in a nation built on agriculture, it simply has to help our society, for the widening gap between city and country to be bridged once a year in such an enjoyable context.
Food and Drink
There’s food, and then there’s fair food. All year long, Mayor Bloomberg and the First Lady may lecture us about nutrition, with all the efforts to nanny-state our nation in something that it never was and never could be, but as Glinda the Good Witch might say to them, “you have no power here.” The nannies can’t stop us from having fun… not here, at least not yet.
At the fair, the excesses we know to avoid all year become legal for a day. We may avoid hot dogs for their fat and sodium, but at the fair, we have a foot-long. We may carry those little books with point counts and recommendations for substitutes the rest of the year, but at the fair, we have a funnel cake drizzled with confectioner’s sugar, a fresh-squeezed lemonade loaded with sugar, or just order our sugar pure, whipped up as a candy cane of delicious excess.
It’s a day for sampling regional fare. Roasted corn for the Midwest, shish-ka-bobs and gyros for the Greeks, cream puffs and bratwurst for the Wisconsinite, breaded pork sandwiches for the Iowan.
Here’s the opposite scenario; the rows of rabbits and hens in the agricultural buildings are to expand the horizons of the city folk, while the food vendors of every kind bring the variety of the city to the small town farmer unused to such a cornucopia of flavors and approaches.
To indulge this way – in mini-doughnuts in the morning and fast food at lunch, in deep-fried everythings and calorie bombs for dinner – is rightly not an everyday thing. But as a simple minor extravagance, once a year in a cultural experience, it’s a marvelous sampling of not just individual flavors, but of Americana, where an important part of our great melting pot is indeed our literal kitchen of many a different taste and presentation.
Commerce, Crowds, and Air Conditioning
One holdover from the 19th century is the lack of shopping options. The more rural your life was, the less you could shop… which was just as well because in the settlers’ era, you weren’t likely to be liquid enough to do much shopping anyway.
But when thousands of rural farmers and ranchers gathered in one place for a fair, that was always a prime opportunity for the Invisible Hand to match up potential sellers with potential buyers. A temporary mall would spring up, full of traveling salesmen, catalog representatives, and anyone else inclined to reach out to large crowds, to negotiate for (hopefully) mutual benefit. First at the county fairs and then at the state fairs, we can witness capitalism at its basic level; a barker selling his wares and a franchise operator looking for entrepreneurs. Sellers of books and programs, evangelists for politics and churches, all these and more have a ten foot square, a table full of goods, and a lapel microphone with portable speakers.
We duck the heat or the rain to enter these buildings, first to browse, then to buy. We leave with a souvenir as planned, or a gift for a friend that just sang to us as we walked by, or a surprisingly appealing gadget that we had never heard of before, but now we just know we could never do without.
This too is part of the American experience… and these aisles full of fellow shoppers, whether there to duck the outside weather or because they really like it, are another snapshot of life in America. The entrepreneur, the inventor, the seller and the buyer – all American, all critical cogs in the American machine.
People and Traditions
We all develop our favorite things to do, often in a certain order. Some don’t mind the long line for creampuffs, or for the carousel or skyway; these are family traditions shared through the generations. Always parking at the same distant private lot for $5, not to save money but to avoid the crowd when the lots empty, late at night. Always buying the mini-doughnuts from the same vendor, or waiting forever for a certain soon-to-be-ex-senator’s colorfully flavored milk.
This writer’s family has made a beeline every year to the commercial building, straight for the Republican Party booth where we buy a couple of fresh bumper stickers for the car and campaign buttons for our shirts. We never miss the Wisconsin agriculture building, to enjoy ice cream with maple syrup, buy locally grown honey, and sample borderline-exotic meats like buffalo and elk.
It’s a bonding process, as the urbanites and suburbanites of Milwaukee mingle with the rural folks from outstate. It’s friendly, despite the crowding and the heat. A state that seemed hopelessly divided in Madison in the spring is totally affable and united in West Allis in the summer. There are no “Walker-fans and Walker-foes” at the state fair, just Wisconsinites (and a few neighbors too), engaging in a long and proud tradition, one that defines both the state and its people, and hopefully shall happily continue to do so for generations.
We learn lessons together, some subtle, some not.
Look at the buffalo burger, a parent tells his son. “How did the buffalo escape from near-extinction?” Comes the answer: “They made it profitable to raise them.” You’ll never see cattle, pigs or chicken going extinct. Want to solve the problem of endangered species? Find a good recipe for them.
Look at the cow, the parent says. “What do we get from them?” There’s barely a pause, as the children volunteer their answers: “Purses, wallets, milk, burgers, steaks, belts… my cellphone case, my new suitcase.”
We talk with each other. “What’s your day really like on the farm or in the city?” … and we gain a new respect for the dairy farmer who’s up at 3:30am to milk the cows or gather the eggs, the barker who packs up his display and travels from fair to fair, the food vendor who’s up four hours before opening and can’t go to bed until hours after closing.
We talk politics. There’s a primary on Tuesday, so we count the signs, the buttons and stickers. We ask to gauge the enthusiasm at the Republican booth, and we see that politicians work the fair themselves. With this many people in town at once, why not?
This year’s primary, just two days after the fair closes, is an odd one. Four good candidates for the U.S. Senate, all of whom would likely make fine senators.
Four Candidates on Fairgoers’ Minds
But ex-Governor Tommy Thompson is an older statesmen whose time may have passed; he hasn’t faced the voters in 14 years. Whether he could win in November is in doubt; the only nearly sure thing is that, if elected, he would almost certainly lose the seat in six years, since it will come up in 2018, hopefully Mitt Romney’s second midterm. Many think that a 2012 election of Tommy Thompson – whom all certainly appreciate for his groundbreaking contributions to welfare and education reform in the 1980s and 1990s – would guarantee a Democrat takeover in 2018. Nobody wants this to be just a single term.
Ex-Congressman Mark Neumann has another problem: despite his generally conservative record during the four years when he served in Washington in the 1990s, he has repeatedly run nasty primary campaigns since then against fellow conservatives, building bad blood in the party for tactical reasons, even as he campaigned for stimulus and green energy funding for his businesses, jeopardizing his reputation with the conservative base. He’s the only one of the four whom one could legitimately fear would prompt much of the base to sit out the race, as punishment for having unforgivably violated the 11th commandment.
Businessman Eric Hovde and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald round out the offerings by presenting a quandary. Both are lifelong conservatives, but successful businessman Hovde is seeking to be a self-funding tea party movement leader in the mold of Senator Ron Johnson, while Jeff Fitzgerald has been in the trenches of the current battle, shepherding Governor Scott Walker’s agenda through the legislature.
With these two in the race, there’s no good reason to even consider the first two.
The question is between these: do we select the conservative with a proven grasp of the economy who can self-fund, or do we select the conservative who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Scott Walker, showing the courage of his convictions in the face of an occupy movement, a hostile press, and the guerilla tactics of Saul Alinsky’s heirs in Madison?
The political talk at the fair this year was focused on this quandary. So many states have no principled candidate in a diverse primary; Wisconsin has a surfeit of riches with four good candidates to choose from. Who to choose? The successful and articulate outsider? The rock-ribbed conservative with a voting record and backbone to make him a true hero, deserving of both our trust and our reward?
Not an easy choice… but a necessary one, almost as soon as the fair is over, on Tuesday, March 15.
But not all conversations were about politics. At this fair, as at all of them, the minds of the people of America are mostly occupied, not with distant Washington, but with their own homes, their own businesses, their own activities.
People walk up and down the aisles, sampling ribs or sandwiches, running into friends and family. The chance encounters renew old acquaintances; the change in schedules, layout and placement of vendors changes family traditions.
And sometimes, a new tradition is born – or maybe two or three – that will last another generation or two, as long as the nanny-state doesn’t wipe out such options from their horizon.
But for the moment, thankfully, we can still share those deep-fried breaded extremes, eat too much meat or listen to too much music, without fear of some distant bureaucrat slapping it out of our hands or mailing a penalty ticket to our homes. For the moment, we can still enjoy these wonderful traditions with their roots in the nineteen century, keeping our culture alive for the next generation.
And whether it takes place in the middle of rural America like Illinois’, or in the suburbs of the biggest city in the state like Wisconsin’s, that’s America. And may it ever remain so!
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. A former county chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, he’s been an annual attendee of Wisconsin’s state fair for some twenty years now.
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