My mother is appalled. "You're driving where?" she asks, and I imagine the phone lines from here to California snapping to attention. I am on my way from Ann Arbor, Mich., to the Iowa State Fair – heading down 560 miles of interstate that take me south of Chicago, north of Peoria, and past more semis and cornfields than I've seen in my life. My mother's confusion makes sense: I'm a liberal vegetarian raised in a California suburb, tooling along in my Volvo as I listen to my iPod, munch bell peppers like apples, and scoop up black bean dip with baby carrots. I was raised in a family averse to crowds and noise, with a precocious sense of trans fat's risks. All I know of fairs comes from "Charlotte's Web" – and Templeton could never be trusted.
Now I'm driving nine hours to see big-wheel races, cow-chip hurling, 4-H displays (what are those four H's for, anyway?), and all manner of fried foods on sticks. I get to the fair at 8 a.m. Vendors are already hawking "pickle dawgs" and pork tips. I opt for a Red Bull smoothie and settle in to watch the kids' pie-eating contest.
The emcee bounces around the stage, a mix of late-night comedian and genial neighbor. "Breathe and swallow," he coaches, and reminds contestants of the rules: no snorting, no hands. The kids are allowed just one piece each of chocolate pie, and in the younger age groups, they're astonishingly slow – to the consternation of siblings. A teenager coaches his little brother to smear pie across his face, leaving less to swallow; a pair of boys screams at their cousin to "Suck it up!"
There are elated victors and would-be gluttons who sigh as they settle for second place. But some of the fair's greatest ardor and grief takes place in the Variety Theater and the Gemini Rooms. Here, Iowans battle over everything from meatloaf to mayonnaise salads. There are 13,000 entries in the food competitions this year – though the "How's My Wienerschnitzel?" contest draws only one.
My first stop is the Great American Spam Championship, where people crowd a small theater, all eyes on the handful of tasters below. Before we get down to business, there's a trivia contest, with questions like "How many cans of Spam does it take to equal the weight of the Statue of Liberty?" (7.2 million), and Iowans – the first to choose a presidential candidate every four years – actually know the answers. Between questions, blue and yellow Spam T-shirts and Spam Tupperware are tossed to the victors.
The woman next to me leans over and quips, "I think they should call this the Spampionship." Alma Witzenburg raised her children on Spam, and her daughter Lisa has placed second in the contest, twice. Today Lisa's entry is a Spamberry coffeecake, an underdog in a lineup of Spam wontons (Spamtons), a Spam tart, and, in the kids' division, curried Spam salad with diced apples. Lisa's coffeecake gets plaudits for originality, but the winner is a Spam turkey torte. As Alma and Lisa file out, they hand me the Spam T-shirt. "You take it," Lisa says gently. "I have one at home."
Inspired by the culinary showcase, I wander over to a kiosk selling Oreos, Snickers bars, and Twinkies – batter-dipped and freshly fried by a man with bared biceps and three visible tattoos – then drift toward the rides in this 400-acre fairground. I am in the twilight of my 20s, and I realize, a few seconds into a $5 ferris-wheel ride, that centripetal motion doesn't agree with me anymore, nor do great heights.
I stagger over to a 30-foot metal ice cream cone, which houses an amiable woman pumping soft-serve into cones. "Don't you get sick of all the noise?" I ask her. "Oh, I love it in here," she says. "It stays cool and I can't hear a thing." I lean in and discover she's right: The Cone Lady has her own oasis in the middle of this spinning, blinking chaos. I consider taking her next shift.
Instead, I slouch over to Pioneer Hall – and fall asleep on a worn white bench waiting for the couples' square-dancing lessons to start. Friday begins on the bench where Thursday ended (though no, I didn't sleep at the fair). It's drizzled on and off all morning, and the bottom of my ankle-length skirt is muddy and soaked.
About 85,000 ribbons, banners, and rosettes are awarded each year at the Iowa State Fair, including several in the next contest I watch: ladies' husband-calling. It's like an audio catalog of women's grievances through the ages: shut the TV off, come help with the cleaning, get in here, dinner's ready, and finally, a simple high-pitched scream. The winner is Savanna DeJong from Oelwein, married eight months, who reminds her husband in the octave of a referee's whistle that he's married to her and not the motorcycle.
The mom-calling competition operates on a similar concept: Children scream into the microphone that it's time for lunch, dad hit them with cow pies, Emma's in the cookie jar, the bathroom's flooded, and anyway, why can't they get a tractor? Exactly one child says "please."
For lunch, I get a "Giant Smokie" minus the smokie – onions, peppers, mustard, and sauerkraut on a foot-long bun – and settle in for livestock shows. A man in suspenders sees my notebook and asks if I'm a judge for Ponies of America. "I don't even know if these are ponies," I say, but I'm proud anyway. I could be an Iowan.
In the barns, livestock owners camp among their animals, with cots and blankets and bags of Fritos. I'm wandering through the stalls, crooning to the baby goats, when I spot a pig as big as a Volkswagen. It's Waldo, the prize boar, weighing in at 1,199 pounds. His ears are the size of infants. Waldo's security detail, Jerry Hunter, explains in a hushed tone that the boar will go to market soon, and when he does, he's good only for pepperoni. Any other meat would be tough and smelly, he says, coming from pigs like these.
"You will find that conditions at a fair will surpass your wildest dreams," the old sheep tells Templeton in "Charlotte's Web." And for me, as for Templeton, they did. It wasn't the 200 food stands, or the butter sculptures, or the 1,818 miles of toilet tissue. It was the emotion everywhere – kids fighting over who gets to sit in a tractor, the 5-year-old who placed in the joke-telling contest and was too excited to remember his name, even the woman who stormed out after the refried-bean contest, muttering that she liked her cooking even if no one else did.
I get home early Saturday morning and have never been so happy to pull on a Spam T-shirt and climb into bed. I went to the fair as a voyeur. But as I left this place where dill pickles are fried without irony and where I'd heard "ornery" used four times in two days, I found myself already longing to return – with my mother.