DES MOINES — Last month, I was at the Wimbledon championships, stronghold of starchy English traditions. On Friday, I was at the anti-Wimbledon — the Iowa State Fair. About all the two events have in common is that they are visited by lots and lots of people (half a million for Wimbledon, more than 1 million for the state fair). The state fair is the home of deep-fried Oreos and ice-cold Budweiser instead of tea sandwiches and Pimm’s Cups — of American egalitarianism instead of English aristocracy. But it is just as fascinating and revealing about the culture from which it springs.
My education in that culture began even before I arrived. I went to the state fair with an Iowa-born friend, now living in northern Virginia, and his brother and sister-in-law from Ames. They have been coming for decades and always park in the same front yard of the same house near the fairgrounds. They see the woman who owns the house only once a year, but they couldn’t just park and go. First they had to have a lengthy conversation, complete with pictures, about their children and the women’s grandchildren. This was my first clue that I wasn’t in New York anymore.
My second clue came a few hours later when I visited the political soapbox where presidential candidates speak. An editor from the Des Moines Register told attendees to be “Iowa nice,” and they were. The Iowans listened with an attentiveness and politeness that would be hard to imagine at a New York political rally. Not a Bronx jeer was heard.
Before coming, I had read of the Iowa State Fair as a forum for campaigning ahead of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. I quickly discovered that politics is just a sideshow — and not a particularly popular one. When you see images from the fair, it can seem as though there is a vast throng listening to the candidates. In reality, it’s maybe 100 people out of the 100,000 or so who visit the fair daily; there isn’t room for much more in the small soapbox area.
Far more people gathered to watch a couple of juggler/acrobats in red trousers perform on an outdoor stage. There were also far more spectators for a competition among cowboys who would gallop around a ring, pistol drawn, shooting balloons tied to sticks. I have to admit that the cowboys and jugglers were a lot more entertaining than the soapbox windbags delivering their stump speeches (which you’ve heard already if you’ve watched any of the presidential debates).
Much to their credit, fairgoers were more interested in judging livestock seeking ribbons than politicians seeking office. My day both began and ended in the livestock enclosures where, on a small stage lined with artificial turf, the swine strut their stuff. The judge in the middle of the ring described contestants with the rat-tat-tat delivery of an auctioneer: “They’re square to the ground. They’re sound and athletic. Just incredible in terms of look and design. Absolutely elite. What a good group of hogs right here!”
This was one of the few snippets that I understood. It was like listening to a Super Bowl broadcast when you’ve never been to a football game before. But the judge’s enthusiasm was infectious. Before long, I found myself looking at the porkers in a whole new light.
While there are plenty of live animals on display — not only pigs but also cows, horses, rabbits, chickens, even emu, elk and alpaca, all from Iowa — the fair’s most famous exhibit is a cow made of butter. Various sculptors have been creating buttery bovines since 1911. It is exhibited in a refrigerated glass case; otherwise it wouldn’t last long on an 85-degree day. I confess to being slightly disappointed, because from a distance it looks as though it could be made of plastic. But I was more wowed by the nearby Muppets made of butter. Rodin, eat your heart out.
The food stands are almost as entertaining as the star attractions. They advertise “Deep Fried Mac & Cheese,” “Hand-Dipped Double Bacon Corn Dogs,” “Giant ½ lb Tenderloin,” “Deep Fried Pickledawgs” and other delicacies that will never be found in the “lean cuisine” aisle. I sampled a deep-fried Twinkie, deep-fried curds, an almond pastry called a Dutch letter, a pork sandwich and fresh grilled corn, and they were all delicious. Between the heat and heavy food, however, I was nearly catatonic by midafternoon. I had just enough energy left to ride the burlap-sack slide, just like Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney.
I left reassured that the normal rhythms of Iowa life continue as they have for generations, despite the various pathologies on display in modern America — from the White House to the El Paso Walmart. “Iowa nice” has survived in an age of snark, sarcasm and mass shootings. There are still plenty of kids who devote their energies to raising pigs rather than raising hell — or simply zoning out with video games. My day at the fair reaffirmed a little of my battered faith in America.