Our State Fair is a great State Fair
Much ado has been made about this year’s Wisconsin State Fair vendor attraction: chocolate covered bacon. It’s a novelty item that was actually all the rage in low-culture culinary circles (if there is such a thing) last summer, but it’s only making the rounds here now. Chocobacon is something that actually makes sense if you think about it. The philosophical concept is the hallmark and the conundrum of this storied fair.
I detailed the attraction of bacon+bananas+peanut butter+chocolate a few months ago, describing how the blend of textures and flavors are perfect together. Combining sweet and salty, creamy and savory, melting and crunchy is something you can really go for if you just close your eyes and turn off all previous cultural programming.
But of course, at the State Fair you can’t close your eyes. Sometimes, you can’t believe your eyes.
If all of the other festivals in Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin— including Summerfest — are the epitome of reveling in low-culture and carnal pleasures, then the 11 days of the State Fair in its modern and advertised form has become the carneval of the Midwest. It’s not just a matter of engorging on indulgent foods. Here is the simple yet heady sensation of sliding down a giant slide on a burlap sack. It’s here that you pick up your shammies, your name on a grain of rice necklace, and a computerized personality test. Dozens of cover bands play the same 30 pop and country songs, and an International Stage area hosts family song fare.
Lost in this entire shuffle, perhaps, are the animals and 4-H craft entries. It is completely possible on the West Allis grounds to bypass the animal barns altogether. It’s also very possible to never see any 4-H, FAA, or Open Class projects — these items were relegated to the Wisconsin Expo Center on what used to be the front end of the grounds. People playing Potawatomi Bingo could look at them. Now they are in a combined yet slim sliver of a building which once housed horticulture entries alone. Know where it is?
There is a lot to miss. Everyone knows where to seek out the Racing Pigs, where little hyperactive squealers are promised a cookie to outrun the others. But do you know where the Natural Resources Park is located? No? It’s been there for decades. In recent years, the exciting edition to watch or participate in is the Ejection Seat ride. It’s located near a new stretch of kid-focused vendors and entertainment on the west side ready to gobble your dollars. So in a quick quiz, where are the 380,000 cream puffs located?
Ha. That was a trick question. Everyone’s perennial favorite the cream puff, which only seems to appear en masse like paczki before Lent, shows up in at least two locations this year, at the Cream Puff Pavilion off the Central Mall and by satellite at the front gates. Plus there’s a drive-thru. Also, there are a few vendors on the grounds who sell their own.
It seems like almost sacrilege to the hardcore Wisconsinite not to partake, unless you’re lactose intolerant or diabetic. In fact, the entire fairgrounds menu would make Sanjay Gupta shudder.
On the Wisconsin State Fair’s highly accessible and detailed website, here are some highlights from the menu: grilled pork chop sandwich, deep-fried catfish, caramel apples, loaded baked potatoes, Shepherd’s Pie, Grebe’s roasted chicken, turkey legs, elephant ears, London Broil, salt water taffy, corn on the cob dipped in liquid butter, all-you-can-eat pancakes, ostrich and buffalo burgers, deep-fried cheese curds, deep-fried vegetables, deep-fried corn dogs, deep-fried candy bars, fried gator taters, calamari tacos, apricot Austrian strudel, crab Rangoon, blooming onions, Irish nachos, coconut shrimp with mango dipping sauce, fresh squeezed lemonade, turkey legs, Portabella and Swiss cheese brats, crab cakes.
These are the highlights. I’m leaving out at least 50 other unique foodstuffs, not including items that have been piked onto a wooden stick including bananas, cheesecake, and shish kebob. In fact, the State Fair website decided to give the vendor listings its own sub-page, which lists 38 individual foods on sticks. How Catfish Johnny’s gets macaroni and cheese or the Machine Shed gets Fried PB&J on a stick is unknown at the time of this writing.
Then there is the beer. It is cold and free flowing, accentuated by the tinny sounds of echoing country music tribute acts. Neither the pavilion setting nor the Grandstand is necessarily a place to find world music or techno, but it certainly should be entertaining. There is much debate whether to see Rick Springfield in concert at the same place you saw him 20 years ago. It’s also a hard call whether or not to watch MMA cage fighting, Foreigner, or Davy Jones of the Monkees.
There has been discussion of late whether or not to attend the State Fair based on attendance volume; looking south from the top of Fifth and Central Avenue during a Saturday afternoon is daunting to say the least. It’s a different story on a Tuesday morning. Save the visit for a weekday if crowds are not your thing.
But to those who wonder whether to go … just go. The State Fair board desperately needs your money, the carny barkers need some scratch, the hard working cooks and purveyors make a living off these two weeks of the year. You need it to feel better about yourself by looking at others, and you need it to see how strong you are — not by making a bell ring with a mallet, but by holding your own when faced with the temptation to debase.