Paul Malchow

Deep in our hearts we knew it was coming. If children weren’t allowed to go to school, if we weren’t even allowed to go to church, they sure weren’t going to let us go to the fair.

The Minnesota and Iowa State Fairs, along with most (if not all) county fairs in both states were canceled for 2020 because of the concern that large gatherings could spread Covid-19. Of course that makes sense. Take a look at the photo on the cover of this issue. Fairs are popular crowd pleasers for a variety of reasons — which makes the cancellations so universally disappointing.

From home crafts to horticulture to livestock exhibits, the fair is a culmination of the year’s labor. Exhibitors have the chance to show off their best. Fairgoers can marvel, compare their own skills to the ribbon winners, or steal ideas for projects of their own.

Merchants can pitch their wares in a less-threatening, more neighborly setting. Who hasn’t come home from the fair with some handy gadget we didn’t even know we needed when we entered the gate?

Children of all ages can fend off the encroaching school year for a few days longer with rides, expositions and games of chance which beckon with the siren’s song of challenge and thrill (not to mention the giant stuffed animal it took half the night and month’s allowance to win). With all of today’s technological flash and theme park bravado, there is still nothing that matches the midway of a fair.

Aside from the occasional fender bender in the mall parking lot, when do you ever get to see a demolition derby? Only at the fair. When do you see Aunt Frida or Joe from the hardware store belt out country western tunes with joy and abandonment in the local talent contest? At the fair.

And, of course, there’s the food.

You can go to the freezer section of your local grocery store and pick up corn dogs any day of the week; but there is simply no comparison to the ones which come from the concession wagon next to the Tilt-A-Whirl.

The 4-H food stand is never going to win a Michelin star, but it’s impossible not to smile when a 12-year-old serves your cheeseburger with such shy determination. I got my first service experience in the stifling hot 4-H stand at the McLeod County Fair and I’ll never forget it.

The mini-donuts, the milk shake stand (strawberry, vanilla or chocolate), cotton candy … all fair staples. And where do you EVER see a foot-long hotdog besides at the fair.

But wait … there may be hope for fair food without the fair.

It turns out many fair food vendors are setting up in parking lots, on roadsides, and even at dormant fairgrounds across the state. Stacy Pittroff-Barona operates her Cheese on a Stick stand which was temporarily located outside the Roseville VFW hall. Kathy Heise, who has run a Pronto Pups stand at the Minnesota State Fair since the late 1980s, has parked her food stand at the end of her Minneapolis driveway. She sells Pups and cotton candy five days a week.

The yearning for fair food is so strong it has taken to the internet. Lori Lexvold and her son Ian Lexvold manage the Fair Food Finder group on Facebook. Lori launched the group after the news that this year’s Minnesota State Fair was not to be. The group now boasts more than 100,000 members.

Group members seek out various food stands and post photos of their finds — sharing the locations. Ian Lexvold  created a map on the site showing those locations. The map began with 10 entries. It now points to about 3 dozen parking lots which are hosting food stands, trailers and tents making fair-style food. Some of the locations have multiple vendors.

Still, a warm mini-donut in the Menard’s parking lot is a poor substitute for the fair experience. My heart goes out to the veteran 4-Hers who will miss their final shot at winning a trip to the state fair; or the beginning 4-Her who has dreamed of showing exhibits of their own. Many service organizations fund their projects with proceeds from the taco stand or bratwurst palace at the fair.

But most of all, the fair — large or small — is about community. It is a gathering of all ages and interests where bums and bank presidents can each walk around with a blob of mustard on the front of their shirts.

During these past months of sickness, economic upheaval, killing, rioting and isolation, we could use a fair more than ever. Unfortunately, it is not to be — and with good reason. But the dates for 2021 fairs have already been set … and I’m ready to go.

Paul Malchow is the managing editor of The Land. He may be reached at editor@TheLandOnline.com.