Nothing says “Americana” like the small-town summer festival or fair. But no one does the fair quite like Minnesota (more on that when the state fair comes to town).
It just seems to me that here in the Midwest, fairs and festivals take on a different character. For instance, the Kickapoo Country Fair happens in July, La Farge, WI. You might expect the traditional fried-food fest–the smell of funnel cakes and powdered sugar, mixed with the sultry allure of slow smoked ribs, beer-battered cheese curds and smothered curly fries. But Kickapoo is held on the grounds of Organic Valley Farms, and is the largest organic, sustainability festival in the Midwest (anywhere??) You wouldn’t expect that–but these little midwestern towns are full of surprises. Take Steamboat Days, for instance.
The festival, which happens every year and lasts Thursday through the weekend, may be a tribute to an era of steam-propelled vessels. But you won’t see a steamboat race. No; you will see the US Title Series Hydroplane Boat Race. Sounding like an angry nest of hornets, these tiny crafts have super-charged engines and rocket across the water like a skipping stone. It is really something to witness–but taking pictures is difficult from afar (and I’m not getting too close). Have a look at Winona’s pages for more.
Okay, Winona is not quite as interested in the organic fest as Kickapoo. The intermingling scent of dueling fry-daddies lingered in the smoke-laden air while Andrea and I queued up to see the human cannonball. (Yes, really. They shot him over the Ferris wheel in an arc that made me wonder if he suffered from depression and had nothing to live for. He landed just fine, however, and they shot him out again an hour later.) The edibles on offer were of the variety no *real* foodie would eat…except at a fair, because fairs turn each of us into the children we once were: no inhibitions, no thought of future indigestion, no concern that there is more grease than food in the food. It is a lovely laissez-faire kind of moment, and I made the best of it. I consumed a half-rack of smoked ribs by myself, shared a funnel cake smothered in chocolate with Andrea, and finished it off with a chocolate malt milkshake.
And let me say a few words about that milkshake. Here in the Minnesota/Wisconsin region, we are very proud of our dairy. Why, every year at the state fair, we crown the Butter Princess…the winner of this “Dairy Queen” contest is honored by having her bust carved into an enormous block of fresh butter. You really ought to see this, so have a look at Red Ravine. At any rate, my malted milk was lovingly served by a team of FFA (Future Farmers of America) teens, who happily posed for a snap. I feel the future of our dairy is in good hands.
Yet another great event in Winona is the weekly farmer’s market. This is not, technically, part of Steamboat Days… But because of the blocking of streets, today’s market was held on Winona State’s campus, in the parking lot of our new Wellness Center. This should not be a surprise, really, for WSU was recently recognized by the “Princeton Review’s Guide to 311 Green Colleges” as being environmentally responsible and “green.” For today’s event, there were about 40 vendors there, and as you can clearly tell, I purchased almost more than I could carry in fresh greens, garlic scapes, French bread, pickled beets and new strawberries.
There is something truly satisfying about wandering through fresh-produce vendors–and not just because I needed to renew my culinary craving after a night at the fair. I appreciate talking to the source–to the growers who were picking the berries late last night so they would be fresh this morning, or to the grower-chefs who happily explain the best uses for kohlrabi and Chinese broccoli. There is such purpose and such commitment–I spent some time chatting with farmers who raise sheep and beef cattle, and for these Minnesota ranchers, sustainability and ethical treatment are key priorities. It is a big difference from the big chain conglomerates, as an article in Natural Communities recently pointed out. Beware: not everything that says it is “organic” is quite abiding by the original meaning of that term. For Andrea and I (and several other colleagues who I glimpsed while there), the proof is in the…fruit tart. The strawberries and preserves really say it all.
The major event of today, however, was the car show or “swap meet.” If you have never attended one of these, it is quite an experience. Vehicles of every shape and size make an appearance–from the Model T, to muscle cars, to trackers. In my experience, the small-town car show usually stretches down a long street, with vehicles parked on either side. Some larger towns give you two streets worth. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into a three-street, four-block, double-street-parking, full-scale swap meet! I feel certain there were more people at the swap meet than there are in the entire town. Magicians, live music, balloon animals, street vendors, and pony rides–engines and hatchbacks and fantastic paint jobs.
And I made some new friends: Wonder if anyone will detect a pattern… Gothic Literature Professors are all the same. I have collected some photos of the show, so please do have a look.
Though I didn’t end up making it to either of these, the Grand Parade and fireworks display are exception from all accounts. I will say that I was within hearing distance of the sonic boom of pyrotechnics, and if the length and power of those thunderclaps are any indication, then Winona’s fireworks are truly first rate! I look forward to Steamboat Days 2012; I hope to be a little better prepared–who knew you could have this kind of fun outside of July 4th??