The state fair is a deep-fried, neon-lit, whiz-bang ritual of Middle America. It's a bustling, temporary mini-city that is a celebration of quiet small-town traditions, showcased in crafts shows and animal barns and displays of blue-ribbon jams.
My parents live in Minneapolis, and a few years ago, they hosted some visiting Scottish friends during the Minnesota State Fair. From the moment they stepped inside the gates, they were hooked by the emphatically American sensory overload of it all. In the next week, they returned three more times.
On the Scots' last day in the States, my parents offered all manner of alternative activities: museums, historic sites, a drive to a charming country town. The friends didn't hesitate: More fair, please. They needed a fifth helping.
More than 1.5 million people attend the Minnesota State Fair each year, coming from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds and, of course, plenty of other states and countries -- The Great Minnesota Get-Together, as it's called, is also the state's great crossroads.
The same is true for the other large and iconic state fairs in the American heartland, in Texas and Iowa. The diversity of fairgoers is a testament to the unifying power of funnel cake, oversized pigs, barkers selling gizmos you didn't realize you needed and midway rides designed to induce both nausea and euphoria.
The three fairs take place at different times in late summer -- road trip, anyone?
WHEN Aug. 9-19
WHERE Des Moines
The Iowa State Fair started in 1854 and is perhaps best known as the setting for the movie musical "State Fair," originally released in 1945 and remade in 1962.
"I've watched that movie so many times, and I'm always amazed by how many things are still the same," says Heather Paper, a native Iowan who now lives in Atlanta but tries to plan family vacations around trips to the fair. It's where she first met her husband, in 1966, when they were 12-year-old 4H kids from different parts of the state, showing their cows at the fair.
It's these tradition-rich activities that Paper singles out as the highlights of the fair: the animal barns, the crafts shows, the 4H projects. And the food competitions, larger than any other state fair's, with nearly 900 categories ranging from archetypal Midwestern standbys like canned vegetables and Miracle Whip Salad to stereotype-defiers like the "Vibrant Vegan" division.
In the event that you can't tell a Holstein from a Jersey, don't hesitate to ask someone for an explanation -- in fact, that education is part of the point of the fair. "Ask a million questions," Paper advises. "People have such a sense of pride."
The iconic tradition of the Iowa State Fair? That would be the Butter Cow, which is exactly what you think it is. Life-size. The first one was carved in 1911, and the sculpture is always modeled after a real cow. This year, for the first time, the cow will be joined by a chocolate moose -- made out of some 400 pounds of Dutch chocolate.
Each year's fair has a different theme, and this year's is "It's Fairlicious," celebrating the importance of food in the fair experience.
"We don't have as much odd and unusual food as some of the other fairs," confesses Lori Chappell, the fair's marketing director, who notes that the food here is really about tradition rather than innovation. "It wouldn't be Iowa without talking about pork," Chappell adds with a laugh and a suggestion for first-timers: Don't miss the pork chop on a stick.
TICKETS Adults $10, children (6-11) $4, 5 and younger free
GETTING THERE There are a variety of park-and-ride options. More details at iowastate fair.org/for-visitors
WHERE TO STAY In addition to area hotels, there are 1,800 campsites on the fairgrounds.
WHEN Aug. 23-Sept. 3
WHERE Saint Paul
My own annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair starts with an incongruous combination, but one that seems totally normal in context: Get a bag of Tom Thumb Mini Donuts and go look at prizewinning Christmas trees. It's been my own routine for as long as I can remember, passed down from my parents, who started me on the path to fair addiction.
I'll be back there again once or twice during this year's run at the permanent fairgrounds roughly equidistant between the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
After that first stop, I wander. State fairs offer some of the best people-watching around, a product of the aforementioned crossroads phenomenon. It also happens to be the best free entertainment in a place where expenses can add up quickly. (A ticket gets you admission to the fairgrounds and nearly all exhibits and buildings, including animal barns and crafts shows, but it doesn't include rides.)
Over the years, it's been delightful to note how fairgoers reflect the growing diversity of the region, in particular the Twin Cities' large Somali, Latino, Indian and Hmong communities. This isn't the Scandinavia-on-the-prairie that Garrison Keillor would have you expect. The cross-cultural vibrancy is evident in the fair's changing food offerings, too, including 2012 newcomers like beef tongue tacos and camel burger sliders.
The fair's most unexpected faces are in the Dairy Building: the Butter Heads. Each year, the Midwest Dairy Association sponsors a pageant for young women from dairy-farming backgrounds, and the winner is named Princess Kay of the Milky Way. She and the other 10 finalists get their busts carved into 90-pound blocks of butter, the sculpting done in full view of the public in a refrigerated, glass-walled room.
My day ends with precisely one ride. If I still have some energy to burn, it's the River Raft Ride, which shoots you down the rapids of an artificial but roaring river, a solid soaking guaranteed. If I'm tired: the Sky Ride gondolas, which offer a bird's-eye view of the fairgrounds and the crowds, and a calming respite from the same.
TICKETS Adults (13-64) $12, seniors (65 and older) $10, kids (5-12) $10, 4 and younger free.
GETTING THERE There are a variety of buses and free park-and-ride options. See the fair website for details.
WHEN Sept. 28-Oct. 21
Everything's bigger in Texas, and the State Fair of Texas' run is longer, too, at 24 days this year. As you stroll the fairgrounds' 450 acres, you'll see all manner of oversized things: the Texas Star, the tallest Ferris wheel in the nation; the world's largest assemblage of Art Deco exhibition buildings; and the fair's mascot, a 52-foot-tall cowboy named Big Tex. (He wears a 75-gallon hat, and he talks.)
"The size of the fair and the pride in the size is very Texas," says Sophia Dembling, author of "The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas" and a New York native who has lived in Dallas since 1983, missing just one fair in that time.
Dembling's own fair ritual is to start at Fletcher's Corny Dogs (they claim to have invented the corn dog, that state fair staple, in 1942) and then to take in the Birds of the World Show by Texas Star. "This bird swoops down from top of the Ferris wheel, inches from your head," Dembling says. "It's the coolest thing."
And then, yes, there's the food. If fried-food audacity is a greasy arms race, Texas is winning. The fair has an annual contest for new, offbeat foods, which breaks batter barriers that seem beyond imagination: deep-fried beer, deep-fried latte, deep-fried butter, deep-fried bubble gum.
"Of course, the state fair has nutritious foods, and you can be a good steward of your calories," says Sally Wamre of the fair's public relations department. She pauses. "But one of the things is to come here and ignore all that."
Beyond eating, Wamre recommends the Cotton Bowl Alive, an after-dark light show on the side of the stadium in the middle of the fairgrounds. The show is new this year, fitting in with the 2012 fair theme, "Big and Bright." But the main fairtime attraction at the Cotton Bowl is the annual Texas vs. Oklahoma college football game. Score some tickets for a truly singular experience, one you won't find at any other fair.
TICKETS Adults $16, senior citizens (ages 60 and older) $12, kids (age 3 up to 48 inches tall) $12, 2 and younger free
GETTING THERE Ride the DART Green Line train to the Fair Park or MLK Jr. stations.
In 2009, we visited the Minnesota State Fair with our three daughters. It was an unforgettable day of family fun, which included eating just about anything you could think of that was fried and on a stick! Here is only a partial list of the treats offered to hungry fairgoers: fried bacon on a stick, butterscotch cake on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, macaroni and cheese on a stick, spaghetti and meatballs on a stick and pizza on a stick. Leave your diets at home! -- Claudia Fenner, Dix Hills