I've lived in the Portland now for two months, and I'll be honest, I love the place. I love the music, I love the beer and I love the people that keep it weird. Sometimes folks from back in Minnesota ask me if I'm getting homesick at all and the response is pretty simple: No. Occasionally at night I'll miss my friends and family, but it's been a beautiful summer and, despite what I've heard about the rains, I think I'll be able to handle the winter seeing as it won't be as cold as death.
But if there's one place in life where we Minnesotans are truly spoiled, it's the state fair.
“The Great Minnesota Get Together,” as the locals there like to call it, is situated smack dab in the middle of the Twin Cities and is an annual pilgrimage for all types, young and old, urban and rural, as many as a quarter of a million of whom will congregate together in a single day under the waning late-August summer sun to enjoy the simple, down-home pleasure of assorted fried things on a stick: fried candy bars on a stick, fried Twinkies on a stick, fried alligator on a stick, fried hotdish on a stick
. You name it, they'll batter it, deep fat fry it and put it on a stick, making for a truly white trash culinary delight for guests to munch on as peruse the fair's 320 acres of farm displays, rickety rides, carnie games and butter statues. Along with lakes, Prince, mosquitoes and Bob Dylan, the state fair one of the things Minnesota does really well.
So it was with some sense of excitement that I prepared myself for the Oregon State Fair,
which an extensive ad campaign had assured me for weeks was “Too big to miss.”
My first impression upon entering the gates was that the ad campaign may have been more than just a little bit misleading. Once again, my perceptions are probably a bit skewed by years of the Minnesota State Fair, which really is huge, so huge in fact that the press lady, on hearing where I was from, felt compelled to say “Oh! Well…this one's not that
big…” No, it isn't. The Oregon State Fair draws about 350,000 in attendance each year, which is roughly what Minnesota's draws in two days. It's not that the event was entirely different, but it felt like the Wal-Mart version of my home state's pride and joy.
And yet the event wasn't without its highlights. First and foremost, it was fun to see that Oregon isn't made up entirely of rose-tattooed, skinny-jeans wearing freaks with lopsided hair
and that there are, in fact, good old-fashioned rednecks scattered throughout the state. They just find a way to avoid Portland. But at the state fair, roles are reversed — the only hippies I saw were relegated to shouting from the medical marijuana petitioners' booth. I've come away from the event with a much better feel for the state's cultural geography, so in that sense my first time at the Oregon State Fair was an educational experience.
There was also that most important of state fair features: unintentional humor.
One came in the form of an award-winning 4-H cookie made by one Rachel Baugh. It was designed to look like a baby chick, but for the longest time I thought it was supposed to be a piece of dog poop. Really, I did, and I couldn't understand why the 4-H people would give an award to a dog poop cookie until my friendly girlfriend intervened to enlighten me. Baby chick or piece of poop, you be the judge:
Also, just for the fun of it, here's a photo of the 1,100 pound pig that you got to see if you paid 50 cents. This was the only photo I could get, I swear:
At another event, a man in an orange Home Depot vest — who sounded like he smokes four or five packs a day and chases down each individual cigarette with a shot of whiskey, after which he promptly breaks the glass with a rubber mallet, sweeps the shards into a dustpan and swallows the each and every one, without a chaser — emceed a kids' rodeo where the children would hop on the backs of sheep who then tried to buck the tykes off. Several times during each attempt, the demon-voiced announcer would shout “Now that's what I call Muttin' Bustin'! We got a real Muttin' Buster right here! Wow, now that's some Mittin' Bustin'!”
It's hard to convey in print just how weird this sounded.
Nearby the “Muttin' Bustin'” was a lonely stand occupied by an old woman and a 20-something young man wearing an In ‘n' Out Burger t-shirt. The booth had a sign that read simply “Are you going to heaven?” Well, my interest was piqued, especially when I saw that it was free and there was no line. I walked up to Kyle (this was the name of the young man) and he gave me a packet with two simple, multiple-choice questions. The first asked if I thought I was going to heaven, with possible answers like “Yes!” “I sure hope so,” “I don't know,” etc. The second question asked what I am doing to get there: “I follow the 10 commandments,” “I've been a good person,” “I've done the best I could,” etc.
Kyle informed me in his lateral lisp that none of those things will be enough to get me to heaven and gave me the usual spiel about how I also need to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior because we human beings are inclined to evil and we need to turn to Christ to be good and whatever uncertainty I have about him will surely go away if I only accept him into my heart and embrace the Eternal Glory of His Word. I was all set to get into an argument with him, questioning how he could be so certain he knows the truth, and there's lots of faiths in the world, and what about evolution?…but he was just too damn nice, and really did seem concerned about the state of my soul.
Whatever problems conservative Christianity may be at the root of in the United States today, basically good folks like Kyle aren't really the issue, even if some of his beliefs seem a bit silly to a modern, enlightened, godless liberal bastard like myself.
Besides, as I walked away, my girlfriend pointed out the Chocolate Covered Kabob-a-Berry on a Stick
stand that was right next door, that advertised itself “A Taste of Heaven.”
“So after you find out if you're going to heaven,” she said, “you can have a taste of it.” Whatever feelings you may have about God, it's hard not to laugh at a juxtaposition like that.
Also if you go to the state fair, don't let the promise of a free salad get you roped into attending a demonstration of cookware.
Yes, I know you feel guilty for the French fries and the ice cream and the hamburger and the elephant ear, but just don't do it.
Specifically, don't get sucked into watching Americraft's “Healthy Gourmet” presentation
. Yes, it's kind of fun to attend a live-action infomercial, replete with applause signs and a miniature studio audience. Yes, host Linda Cowie seems awfully nice. Yes, the 50s throwback lines, said in all seriousness, are funny for a little bit (“Girls, your husbands spend so much on toys for their tool sheds, don't you think it's about time you spoiled yourself with some tools of your own?” She said some variation of this about 30 or 40 times over the course of an hour), but it's just not worth it. This is especially true if you and your girlfriend are two polite, fresh-faced “aww-shucks” Midwestern types who have a hard time getting up and leaving prematurely in the midst of a demonstration that is obviously going poorly as the host spends half her time attempting to hold up the tent display that the wind keeps trying to throw to the ground, especially after she gave you that free salad and, well, gosh darn it, she's just so awfully nice. You aren't going to buy a $2,500 set of cookware at the state fair. You just aren't! So don't fool yourself.
At least there's always one thing that can make a person feel better after a disappointing day of unhealthy eating, mediocre rides, and perusing an inordinate number of hot tub displays (Really? Hot tubs? Do people buy so many Jacuzzis at the state fair that it warrants that many dozens of displays? Really?) That one thing: Willie Nelson
. Thank you Willie, for once again saving the day. I can only hope your tour bus doesn't get pulled over on the way out of town.
Read another view of the Oregon State Fair, specifically on fake Mexican rodeos, here
Photos taken by Nina Petersen-Perlman. Thanks Nina!