September 1, 2005
St. Paul, MN — It’s not a popular sentiment to utter in these parts. But it just has to be said: the Iowa State Fair is better than the Minnesota State Fair.
I’ve heard all the reasons why people think the Great Minnesota Get-Together is so great. I’ve submerged myself in the sea of fairgoers who flood the fairgrounds in hopes of scoring a bucket of food -– one filled with chocolate chip cookies or French fries or any random item covered with powdered sugar. I’ve admired the seed art and ascended the space tower and joined the befuddled crowds to watch a veterinarian neuter a cat at the pet surgery exhibit.
Certainly, the Minnesota State Fair offers a lot of entertainment for $9. But let’s be honest: this state’s fair is essentially an enriched amusement park. The Iowa State Fair, on the other hand, is an American classic. Esquire Magazine placed the annual event on its "Fifteen Superlative Places to Experience" list.
The fair was showcased in the New York Times bestseller "1000 Places to See Before You Die." And it inspired the novel "State Fair" as well as three motion pictures and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical.
Of course, you don’t need a New York stage show to tell you what's so special about Iowa’s agricultural showcase. The fairground's 400-acres are teeming with reminders.
There's the little boy delicately blow-drying the ivory feathers on his beloved chickens, preparing them for the 4-H poultry competition. He doesn't want to talk about what will happen to the hens once the fair is over.
There's the old guy in overalls and a seed cap who's hoping to become the fair's grand champion fiddle player. He's been practicing his version of "Soldier's Joy" for months, with his goats as his primary audience.
And there’s the teenage girl who's nervously awaiting the start of the cowgirl queen contest. She applies navy blue mascara to her eye lashes and baby blue glitter to the backside of her horse. She says her Appaloosa's tail would have looked much better for the competition if only the family's cow hadn’t eaten part of it off last week.
Sure, there are probably Norman Rockwellesque scenes like these at the Minnesota State Fair as well. But too often they’re obscured by the crowds of women in high heels complaining about the smell of the horse barn or overshadowed by the countless men in American-flag T-shirts gobbling down alligator on a stick.
The Iowa State Fair isn't hip. It’s not flashy. But it's genuine and sincere and unpretentious. The cattle barns are filled with dairy farmers who never leave the side of their prized cows. They set up cots and card tables and crock pots and simply make themselves at home under the wooden rafters of the 85-year-old building. At night, some even curl up on the hay next to their cows and fall asleep. You can't get much more real than that.
To be sure, the Iowa State Fair isn't all earnestness. In addition to showcasing everything from soybeans to swine, the fair boasts the beard growing contest and the cow chip throwing event and the ever-popular ugly cake competition.
The ugly cake competition invites kids ages seven to seventeen to create the ugliest cake possible. The only rule is that the cake and everything on it has to be edible. For whatever reason, contestants tend to translate the phrase "ugliest cake" to mean "most disgusting-looking cake."
One of the crowd favorites this year was entitled "Mower Mishap." The confectionary concoction took on the shape of a foot. A pool of bright red frosting held the place where the fourth toe should have been.
Fairgoers gather to analyze the ugly cake contenders and debate the degrees of grossness. Is the watery brown frosting on the baked replica of the sewage system more revolting than the greenish-grey frosting covering the double-layered deceased carp? And are the ramen noodle "maggots" coming out of the devil's food dead cat more disturbing than the cherry pie filling "blood" covering the super-moist dead skunk? The deliberations can go on for hours.
While sugary imitations of roadkill are indeed crowd-pleasers, they’re simply no match for the fair’s world-renown butter sculptures. Every year since 1960, artist and dairy farmer Norma "Duffy" Lyon has sculpted a life-sized cow out of low-moisture, pure-cream Iowa butter. In 1994, she gained national fame by complimenting the cow with a 400-pound butter likeness of country superstar Garth Brooks.
This year, in addition to an Ayrshire, she offered up a high-cholesterol facsimile of golfer Tiger Woods. By most accounts though, her magnum opus was the 2,000-pound butter reenactment of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" that she created in 1999. All 12 disciples joined a five-foot-tall Jesus Christ around a table for bread and wine. And everything -- the chairs, the plates, the goblets-- was made of butter.
To be sure, if you want to find the typical state fair trappings, the Iowa State Fair has those as well. There are hoards of people walking around eating gigantic turkey legs and foot-long corn dogs. You can always track down a guy with a microphone headset willing to sell you the most amazing kitchen knives ever made. And, if you get just one plastic ring around that glass pop bottle, you, too, can be a winner, winner, winner!
Yet, somehow, at the Iowa State Fair respect for tradition outshines everything else.
There's the kid who's proudly showing off the very first lamb he's ever raised. He'll tell you that his Suffolk gets nervous when she's having her wool sheared and that the bleating noise she makes is the coolest sound he's ever heard.
There's the woman who, once a year, turns the family barn into a bakery and churns out over 100 cakes to enter in the fair's countless food competitions. And though she's too modest to admit it, she's been known to take home a blue ribbon for nearly every dessert she submits.
And there's the farmer who’s been showing long-horned cattle since he was a kid. He met his wife at the Iowa State Fair and married her in the show ring in front of a pavilion full of fairgoers.
Newspapers, radio broadcasts and television news shows are full of stories about the demise of rural America. Experts talk about the death of the family farm. But the Iowa State Fair highlights the country’s agricultural heritage. And, somehow, this celebration doesn’t come across as old-fashioned or kitschy. It seems current and true.