Summer in the Midwest is county fair time, and visiting one as a city person is essentially going to a foreign land. A adorable, delicious, shockingly fun foreign land. I went to the Racine County Fair in Union Grove, Wisconsin, over the weekend, but I think you can use this as a field guide to any standard-order county or state fair.
County fairs are separated from the typical suburban fun fair or city street fest by the showing and auctioning of farm animals. A stroll through the barns is odoriferous but also pretty impressive—pigs, for example, are massive (and really funny when sleeping on their sides, kicking their legs, having little piggy dreams). But a good county fair will also have a petting zoo. I felt a little weird going into the petting zoo as an adult, but there was too much cuteness to walk by. The stalls, run by local 4-H kids who think it’s hilarious that you, city-dweller, don’t know the proper way to hold a duck (on your lap, duh, and also those things are super squirmy), are full of chickens, kittens, puppies, ponies, and baby goats. Baby goats! Did I mention one-week old baby goats?
There are more exotic animals at the county fair (and I’m going to avoid making some kind of horrible condescending hillbilly cheesehead joke here, but you can insert your own if you like). The Racine County fair had the Tiger Show, which definitely included some very sad looking tigers but really didn’t count as much of a show. Watching it was a mixture of feeling awful that those tigers are likely not having a great life and being scared that they were going to get loose and eat my arm. A woman standing next to me asked her husband, “Is this making you nervous to watch?” in a way that made me think she was alluding to a previous tiger incident in his life. I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to provoke a flashback.
County fairs are made for grazing. There’s just too much good food. Some of it is just plain old good-good, like home-baked chocolate eclairs (made with Real Dairy because this is Wisconsin) or this incredibly juicy and flavorful Italian sausage.
And some of the food is ridiculous-good. Fairs are known for the trend of deep-frying everything. I saw fried shrimp, fried Twinkies, fried Snickers, and fried Oreos. But I couldn’t pass up fried bacon-wrapped tater tots.
And, obviously, fried cheese curds. Again, it’s Wisconsin.
There are three main buckets o’ fun at a county fair: rides, games, and shows. My considerate travel companion didn’t make me go on any rides after I told him I’d probably cry and throw up simultaneously, and we tried to play Skee-ball, but a bunch of punk kids were hogging all the lanes, having come prepared with bags of quarters and an insatiable thirst for stuffed prizes. But we did make it to the Big Show, what we really came for: the demolition derby.
I’d never been to a demolition derby before, and I wasn’t sure what I’d think or even really what I was getting into. I was surprised by how quickly I got into it, picking a favorite car based on how they were decorated or, in the second bout, the gender of the drivers (the announcer kept telling all the women in the crowd to support their fellow ladies). I was also surprised that it wasn’t all that violent. The cars definitely got wrecked to bits in amusing and smoky ways, but there wasn’t a point at which it seemed like anyone would get hurt or that anything would burst into a ball of flame. It was just like overgrown bumper cars, and I dug it. Wanton destruction in the name of good, clean family fun was the perfect capper to an all-American day at the fair.