The Iowa State Fair might be the most famous in the country. Hey, the state that’s most famous for corn, soybeans, and pigs ought to at least have that. Every year the fair creates the next fried innovation – fried Twinkies and Oreos being a standard now, along with fried Snickers and Milky Ways. This year, the fair debuted fried apple pie and fried fruit kabobs drizzled in chocolate sauce. Let’s not forget all the meat: Long stretches of people waiting for a pork chop, or a tenderloin the size of their face, or maybe a dubiously-named Hot Beef Sundae (don’t worry, the “ice cream” is mashed potatoes, it just looks like a sundae). Good thing you usually have to park far away and walk a good deal in the fair.
I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life, yet the state fair is where every Iowan gets to be a tourist in their home state. Do you want to see the USS Enterprise carved out of butter? Want to pet a tortoise? Want to sample some Iowa wines, sweet to the point of being medicinal? Want to ride a spinning ride until you almost throw up those fried Oreos? You can. You can do it all.
I haven’t been to the State Fair since I was a teenager, dragged along with my parents and our bemused foreign exchange student from Bangkok. What must she have thought of the spectacle? In many ways, it’s a big conglomeration of Midwestern stereotypes. Overweight people in scooters eating fried dough. Blue ribbon pigs, napping in their pens. Ranch dressing and hamburgers.
These rural stereotypes are all alive and well at the fair, but even though I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life, the whole thing is foreign to me. I watch 4H teenagers give their cows showers and hold their sheep’s heads up for a judge’s inspection, and I know their understanding of the world and life experiences are so different from mine. We come from the same state, but we are worlds apart. But this is our State Fair.
I saw a woman in a rhinestone Confederate flag baseball cap, right by a man who had a shirt with a deer on it that said “I like ’em with long legs and a big rack.” I do not understand them, and if we stopped to chat, they probably wouldn’t understand me either. We would probably shout and continue to not understand each other, but we don’t, because right now we are all in line to get a corn dog or a paper bowl of tater tots. Women on scooters cool themselves with Trump-Pence paper fans. I do not know where they have been and what has led them to be right here with these items. I don’t know how I got here myself. But here we are, at our State Fair. We are Iowans together, even if that is our only commonality.
I sound so bemused and alienated, but we had a great day, my friend and I. We rode the gondola, our legs dangling over the parade crowds. We watched animals being judged for criteria beyond our understanding (all the sheep looked like nice sheep to us). We ate adventurous foods and walked around with wobbly plastic cups of beer (something I definitely couldn’t do as a teenager). We made it to nearly every corner of the fair, looking at the many exhibits (baby ducks! miniature houses! photography! gourd displays!), and left sated.
The tagline for this year’s fair was “Nothing compares to my State Fair.” Can it be mine, even though I pass through it without understanding the ins and outs of agriculture, of sheep bone structure, of what makes that tenderloin different from this one? Maybe I’m overthinking it. We’re all tourists here, Iowans and outsiders. Pass the fried Oreos- I might be able to stomach just one more before I go into diabetic shock.