My good friend and sturdy Kansas patriot Tony Woodlief writes about the best State Fair around in today’s Wall Street Journal. A sample:
Fairs embody our roots in agriculture, entrepreneurship and rabble-rousing. Where else can you, in a matter of minutes, buy a tractor, ride a camel, sample the latest in waterless car-washing technology, marvel over a 20-pound cucumber and then saunter a few hundred feet to hear Hank Williams, Jr. belt out “Family Tradition”? Let’s face it: no matter how sophisticated we become, a life-size statue of Elvis sculpted from 800 pounds of butter will always fascinate us.
And if you don’t understand this, then I’m afraid you don’t understand America. Don’t look for enlightened insights about American culture from those like Frenchman and “American Vertigo” author Bernard-Henri Lévy, who could afford no more than a “quick visit” to the Iowa State Fair, but who lingered over prisons in a manner that would make Foucault blush. If you’ve never hurled a tattered baseball at a pyramid of milk jugs, run your hand along a shiny new combine, or cheered at a pig race, then save your opinions for people who roll their eyes at Lee Greenwood.
Come to think of it, perhaps a qualification for commentators on American culture should be the ability to explain a cheese curd. The food alone can make fairs worthwhile, all of it from heaven or hell, although I’m not really sure which.
There are the funnel cakes, steak sandwiches, and roasted and buttered corn on the cob so hot you can brand cattle with it. And let’s not forget the panoply of fried delicacies. Every year brings an item that nobody before had thought—or dared—to fry and eat: pickles, Twinkies, HoHos, and—surely a sign of the apocalypse—bacon-cheeseburger doughnuts. Alongside these are all manner of skewered delights: pork chops on a stick, potato chips on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, waffles on a stick and, as ever, corn dogs and candy apples on sticks.
It seems insane to me: Not the unhealthy food, mind you, which I wholeheartedly support, but arming thousands of children with sharp wooden sticks. Perhaps that’s just the usual handwringing from a parent of four little boys who hopes to see them all through to adulthood with two eyeballs apiece.
That is always part of it, of course, both attending the fair and raising children, this fear that harm will come to them. In that sense the fair is not only microcosm but metaphor. At least it is to me as I put my ten-, eight-, and five-year-olds on a whirling, spinning, lighted metal contraption, wave goodbye, and pray to God that the carnies weren’t drinking when they assembled it— all while restraining my three year-old, who is outraged that he can’t go with his brothers. We are always sending them away, one way or another, and hoping the way is safe.
Though it’s a metaphor, however, the fair is gentler than life, because within minutes they come back to us, hair tussled, cheeks aflame, eyes wide. And at the end of it all, long after the sun has set, we pack them into our minivan, where they fall asleep almost instantly. Then we drive home through the dark country night, thankful to have been part of something so exhausting, and hokey, and irrepressibly American.