|Twilight parade, 2012|
The Illinois State Fair opened Friday, and runs until Aug. 23. While I can't say that I felt an urgent yearning in my heart to hurry down to Springfield and attend, three years ago my family did go, and it was more fun than we expected.
|Deep-fried dill pickles|
That does sound like a lot, doesn't it? That was the menu of what I ate, in the order I ate it, during the first four hours of wandering around the Illinois State Fair on Thursday, the evening it opened.
|Have to try the red velvet funnel cake|
"Please have some more," he said, holding the cardboard trough that contained most of the pound or so they gave him for his seven bucks. "I can't finish them all."
I delivered a little speech about how not finishing everything is a survival skill at the fair, and we pitched the rest.
So why, having never gone to the Illinois State Fair in my entire life, did I decide to drive the 200 miles to attend now? Several reasons. First, I was in town, not on one of the epic transcontinental vacations we've been taking for, gee, the previous four years.
Second, I was curious. I went to the fair for the same reason Mallory climbed Mt. Everest: because it's there.
And third, I heard you could milk a cow. That piqued my interest. I've witnessed a variety of food chain activities—pigs slaughtered, goats fed, turkeys exercised, even watched bloater chubs pulled from Lake Michigan. But I've never been up close and personal with a cow. That seemed a thing to do.
What I wasn't interested in was snarky urban sneering. Some targets are too wide—I have my pride. Just as I sheathed my dagger when I went to Graceland and Disney World, so I sensed, somehow, driving through the lovely Illinois farmland framed by white expanses of billowy cumulus clouds, that there would be no icon-bashing this trip.
And indeed, my immediate impressions of the crowds flowing into the fair included none of the standard anthropological clucking. My fellow visitors weren't particularly fatter than anybody you'd see shopping on Michigan Avenue. They weren't rustic in obvious, laughable ways. Just here to enjoy good old-fashioned—if hypercaloric—American fun.
Maybe it helped that the temperature was in the low 80s, so it wasn't the hellscape it might be if it were in the upper 90s. There was even a cool breeze.
The fair opened its 10-day run—until Aug. 19—with a Twilight Parade, led by fire trucks representing entities such as the Illiopolis Fire Protection District. Gov. Pat Quinn led a phalanx of green-shirted supporters. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan seemed surprised to spot me in the crowd.
"What are you doing here?" she shouted as the parade rolled by.
"Working!" I yelled back.
The family shared a table in the Ethnic Village with Kris Theilen, alderman of Springfield's 8th Ward, and supporter Patrick O'Ravis.
"A lot of people who come to the fair are locals," said O'Ravis. "You get a chance to see people you haven't seen. And it's a great children's atmosphere."
"For 10 days your routine is different," said Theilen. "I saw people I haven't seen for years. We buy the Mega-Pass. My children ride the rides like you wouldn't believe."
My boys, while too cool for the Zipper or the Ferris wheel, were placated by the vista of bizarre fried foods — candy bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, anything that could be dropped into a fryer — and seemed to be having a good time, or at least as good a time as teens are capable of having with their parents. I had fun, finding the kind of whimsy I admire. One of the food stands is called, "Mom 'n' Pop Corn."
"My oldest daughter came up with the name," said Mike Paine, who travels the country selling candied popcorn with his wife, Bonnie. "I'm pop and this is mom and the little kernels are back in Minnesota."
He said business is good. At that moment it began to rain, lightly. I worried it might be bad for the fair, but Paine unexpectedly called to the heavens for more.
"Quit teasing us with rain!" he commanded the skies, explaining that the drought is affecting his business.
"My popcorn is not popping like normal," he said—the moisture in popcorn is what causes it to pop, and dry popcorn doesn't pop right. "There's a definite difference. If it's hurting me, imagine what it's doing with the farmers."
Monday: Cows, both butter and living.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 12, 20012