Cream Puff for you–Wisconsin State Fair post!

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Sky Glider
Sky glider above Main Street, Wisconsin State Fair.

Cate, Stella and I started our trip to the Wisconsin State Fair in a non-standard way — we took the Milwaukee city bus (actually two buses, the 30 and the 18 — still free transfers in Milwaukee unlike in Philadelphia where they cost 60 cents and where the courts had to overturn SEPTA’s discontinuation of them altogether!).

Anyway, the city bus is non-standard since this is the midwest and car culture is all pervasive. It is understood that most everyone will come to the fair in a car.

The bus dropped us far enough from the Media Gate where we were to pick up our tickets that we got lost a few times, and after a few wrong turns and what seemed like an eternal march in the mid-day sun and heat we made it to Gate 8, got our tickets, and were golf-carted by a sympathetic Fair employee who took us exactly where we wanted to go in the sprawling complex. Oh, the joy of a golf cart ride! It wiped out all our over-heated unhappiness in one fell swoop.

Free Ice Water
Water cost $3 a bottle at all the concession stands which made us not happy. But this free ice water stand run by the Salvation Army saved us several times on the hot day.

Fair Facts

The Wisconsin State Fair began in 1851 (three years after Wisconsin became a state–more WI history here). The first state fair was in Janesville, WI. People paid 10 cents admission. The fair has been cancelled only five times over its lifetime — in 1861, 1862 and 1863 during the Civil War, 1945 during World War 2 and in 1893 when it was decided that the World Columbian Exposition that year in Chicago would take away so much business it wouldn’t be worth staging it. In 1892 the fair moved to its home in West Allis.

Super PVA the magical mop
In the Wisconsin Exposition Center, hundreds of vendors, or more, it’s an an unbelievable number, fill the hall with products, many like what you see advertised on late night TV. There’s always an audience and we saw lots of people buying.

Rubber Band Shooters
OK, so this is not the land where political correctness rules. These rubber band shooters are in the shapes of real mow-em-down machines like AK-47s. A man was buying one as we walked by.

Statistics

Attendance at the 2007 fair was down by 7% over 2006 according to a report in the Milwaukee Business Journal. Heat, humidity and rain were blamed. But still and all, some 801,400 happy people managed to show up for the festivities between Aug 2-12.

Crowds and corn
Excellent corn at the Lions Club corn roast which is at one of the busiest crossroads of the fair. $2.75 an ear — Proceeds donated to charity.

And just in case you’re wondering, the fair — like any exposition or convention — is big business. 2006 revenues were $13 million including more than $1 million profit! So eating cream puffs is definitely healthy… for the Wisconsin economy.

The Fair Grounds

statefairmap.JPG
State Fair map in all its glory.

The place is laid out like a small village. There’s a Main Street, First Street, Central Avenue, Badger Avenue — it sprawls over more than 200 acres in West Allis, the Milwaukee suburb named after heavy machine manufacturer Allis Chalmers which isn’t there anymore (I wonder what that does to civic pride?). AC used to make farm machinery and they were bought by a German company and just went away eventually leaving no trace but their name attached to the Milwaukee suburb and of course memories from those who used to work there.

Ten buildings and barns create a mini-Ag Village with 293,000 square feet of space for exhibitors and animals. This is one of my favorite things about the fair–the close up sights, sounds and smells of rabbits, poultry, sheep, goats, swine, horses and livestock. Every year there’s an auction of champion blue ribbon animals. The Governor’s Blue ribbon Livestock Auction donates a portion of the proceeds to educational scholarships. The 2006 auction sold 27 animals for a total of $243,680 which funded 15 scholarships. (One animal sold for $59,000 in 2006-a record-breaking amount).

And here’s something I didn’t know before. Half way through the 11-day fair, there’s animal changeover day where the first week’s piggies and cows are sent home and a new, fresh batch is brought in. Last year, 10,600 animals were exhibited.

biosecurity measures
Biosecurity measures. Sign of the times, telling you if you’ve been in a foreign country in the last 7 days don’t come into the livestock barns. And do not touch the animals. Check the number of fans in this picture. The barns were very warm and there were fans everywhere.

Blue Ribbon steer, $35,000
Blue Ribbon steer, sold to Northland Explosives for $35,000 in the Governor’s auction, proceeds of which go in part to endow educational scholarships. My question–what is the explosives manufacturer going to do with a prize steer?

Asleep in the hay
The 4-H exhibitors and in fact all the animal exhibitors work so hard–this one is catching some zzzzs right in the barn. Note the piece of straw in his mouth.

Going through the barns I can understand one reason why they’d change the animals over mid-fair. The the crowds of people touching and taking pictures and just milling around the animals must stress these creatures out. The horse barns in particular are cramped quarters for the massive percherons on display, and several horses were kicking their stall doors in no uncertain terms conveying their displeasure. But people love animals and horses most of all. And in spite of numerous hand made signs imploring people to not touch the horses the need to reach out and pet them was too strong and I saw lots of people making the animal-human connection.

Food!

Grilled cheese sandwiches, gooey great
Workers preparing grilled cheese sandwiches.

Cheese and cream puffs, ice cream and grilled cheese sandwiches–we’re in the dairy state’s heart of hearts here (or heart of darkness if you consider the impact of these products on your cardio-system). But one cream puff a year? One bag of cheese corn? That will not hurt you, surely. This year, for the first time ever (and I can’t believe it took them this long) there was a grilled cheese sandwich shop in the Wisconsin Products Pavilion serving up gooey sandwiches for long lines of customers.

Cream Puffs!!
Cream Puffs, the two we bought to split amongst the three of us. You stand at little tables and snarf em down getting sticky cream all over you. It’s finger food that defies the fingers.

And then there’s the cream puffs which should win the black ribbon for fetish. People dream of these things and come to the fair specifically because of them. My press kit tells me that the lightweight and uber-fat biscuit that’s the vehicle for transporting a cup of whipped cream to your mouth appeared 83 years ago at the 1924 fair when the Wisconsin Bakers Association debuted its recipe.

Team Cream Puff
Enter here for Cream Puffs says the sign. You needed the sign since it wasn’t clear where to go what with all the people milling around.

Happy for the camera
Two from Team Cream Puff — they looked up from filling the puffs and were happy to smile for me. There was a skewed division of labor–ladies in the puff baking room cutting the pastries in half and guys in the freezer, pumping cream. The cream puff factory has a wall of glass windows so you can see the way they’re made.

Last year, 384,835 puffs were sold…three times more puffs than ears of corn sold in the Lions Club charity corn roast in the midway (110,000 ears of corn last year). Cream puff mania is so extreme that the fair allows people to call for emergency deliveries — by Bell Ambulance — of a six pack of puffs to go delivered to your home of office!

Ribbons

Spam at the fair
“Spam, the pinnacle of culinary achievement.” Guffaws all round.

How about them ribbons– red, yellow blue and gold…and this year I saw a pink one too. Last year, 44,513 ribbons were ordered for the Ag portion of the fair (ribbons awarded to best animals as well as best apple pie, cakes, knit goods, quilts). In some cases the contest was sponsored by a corporation, so, for example, you had the best Pillsbury pie crust pie (different from the best pie) and the best — and this is hard to swallow — Spam dish!

Nice quilt caught my eye in the Horticulture, Crafts and Culinary building.
Nice quilt caught my eye in the Horticulture, Crafts and Culinary building.

Crowds looking at crafts<>
Crowds looking at the crafts. Men, women, old young, lots of folks enjoying the mix of pies, cakes and knitware in the glass cases, where art, craft and cooking are all one.

Award winning onions
So this picture I’m putting up for my husband, Steve, who never met an onion he didn’t like. Award winning onions!

Visitors

Who visits the Wisconsin State Fair…other than the obsessed art critic, her photographer sister and the critic’s fashionable 18-year old daughter? Fifty percent of fairgoers are Milwaukee residents. Eleven percent travelled from other states….The average age of the fairgoer is 38 and people tend to come in groups–averaging 3.6 people per group! The average stay is six hours!!! A lot of that time is spent in lines waiting to eat creampuffs and corn or waiting to ride the rides or use the restrooms.

Music
Music goes with the fair and in small venues and large grandstands the speakers bombard you with rock, salsa, African, German, Irish and other musical feasts for the ears. This year the Bodeans (one of Milwaukee’s contemporary claims to fame) were playing and my friend Kitty, a major music fiend, was going to that.

So What’s it all About Alfie?
So why go to something so old-fashioned and yes, let’s face it, corny as all get out? Apart from the food (it’s a major excuse to sample the products) what is great about the fair is the sense of Americana that blasts from every corner of every pavilion and byway. The whole philosophical underpinning of the fair is about showcasing agriculture (and how removed are we from that right now?) with a heaping helping of contests where people get to try to be the best at something. Best at raising a cow or pig, best at knitting a toaster cozie, best at raising a zucchini or onion — best at something. This is the original DIY-fest. With prizes!!

With its emphasis on agriculture it’s American roots at its rootiest. It’s a chance to let go of your cool and embrace that which is geeky, earnest and ambitious.

And the quest for that blue ribbon? How rudimentary, how basically wonderfully human to want to be best at something. It’s great to be reminded that people everywhere are striving and achieving — and not only on those preposterous television shows with their unbelievable contestants and ridiculous talent contests.

Award winning drawing
Award winning drawing in the case with award winning cakes! Love it!!

Stella looking at bling
Stella looking at bling in the Expo Pavilion.

Automatic Bible
Automatic Bible. I can’t even imagine…and I sure as shooting was not going to ask for a demo!

So if you’re near a state fair, I highly recommend a visit. (Pennsylvania, fyi, seems to have no single state fair but a series of county fairs.) The admission price won’t break the budget and the entertainment is highly entertaining.

Finally, last night on Prairie Home Companion, a show than annoys some but I like because it reminds me so much of what is good about the midwest — the self-deprecating humor, the humor, the humor — Garrison Keillor announced that next week’s program would be broadcast live from the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul. So if you can’t get to a fair in person you can get there virtually by listening to all the corn pone that will come out of that show next week.

And here’ a link to many more photos at flickr.

Tags

cream puffs, milwaukee, wisconsin, wisconsin state fair

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