“He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
– Dr. Samuel Johnson
Halfway through the sauce-smothered turkey leg, it becomes increasingly obvious that I’ve made a mistake. I’ve severed the wrong supportive string of tendon, and in doing so, the entirety of the steaming, aromatic, deliciously sloppy chunk of bird flesh plops down into the tiny red and white cardboard container with a meaty smack, like a dead salmon hitting the fillet table. And here’s me, forkless. The couple sitting next to me on the wooden bench politely ignores my dog-like snuffles and snorts as I try to extricate my fifteen dollar purchase from the rapidly disintegrating cardboard, in a race against time that leaves sauce smeared everywhere and meat juices staining my jeans.
It is not my finest hour, and I pray that no girls I know recognize me in the throes of turkey-scented monomania. “A man’s meal charges a man’s price,” to paraphrase Marty Hart from “True Detective.”
But it’s a state fair meal, a certain brand of food that seems to fall outside the boundaries of what’s considered “healthy eating” or “reasonable portion sizes.” The fair is a three-week cheat meal, an excuse for hundreds of thousands who pour through the gates to go nuts on turkey legs, bricks of deep fried onion rings, foot-long corn dogs, Denali-sized cream puffs, chocolate dipped ice cream bars, elephant ears (or funnel cakes, depending on your dialect) and hundreds of other fried, battered, cheese-smothered, or sugared delicacies. They’re all served on some variety of stick or in a portable container, the better for walking around and taking in the vast sensuous cacophony of excess that is the Alaska State Fair.
The fair is ostensibly a display of livestock and agricultural offerings, presented by Alaska’s farmers and foragers, from pigs and goats to cucumbers and the much-praised giant cabbages. But it’s obviously more than that: an enormous superstructure of rides, food vendors, and booths hawking merch, swaying gently in the breeze generated by the ancient and unstoppable forces of capital and consumption. The fair is like a Bosch painting – you can’t look directly at it and take in every detail; you must step forward and go over the whole with a fine tooth comb, examining each scene and individual figure from different angles, until you’ve gotten a sense of the whole as a sum of its parts.
For me, that meant eating a turkey leg, the dimensions of which defied God and Nature simultaneously, followed by some crab cakes, and then a chili dog from the Catholic food stall right across from one of the rickety roller coasters. It was for science – or for journalism, or whatever. I don’t need to justify myself to anyone. (The cream puff, however, which was advertised as “Denali-sized,” wasn’t for either – though I considered writing it off as a business expense, considering its place in this column.) I remarked to a friend, polishing off the remains of my chili, that if the fair officials had any sense of historical irony, they’d put the Russian Orthodox candle and icon booth next to the Catholic burger joint, and cause another Great Schism. Everyone loves a theology joke, especially when it’s shouted above the shrieking of kids and the dull rumble of that ride that throws you around in a circle like a washing machine or a particularly energetic street mugger.
Next: the animals, which I’ve a particular kinship for, especially the pigs. I was given the affectionate nickname of Boss Hogg in college (note: this isn’t true), but I’ve always respected the pigs for their devil-may-care approach to life. From the traphouse to the slaughterhouse – we should all be so lucky. There were yaks this year, which seemed new to me, but a yak is another animal that’s captivated me since childhood. A cow with fur, that can climb mountains? Sign me the hell up, buckaroo.
“You want a sip, baby?” This from a misshapen mother clad in Walmart camo, offering her toddler half a bottle of Cherry Coke. An anthem for Burgerworld – God bless and preserve it.
We come to the vegetables. My friend and I linger over the cucumber exhibitions, pointing out the different classes and lengths, with assorted ribbons pinned to each. “Six inches?” I observe, pointing out a cucumber with a slight bend at the tip. “That seems like plenty, honestly. I think some would say that’s even a little too much, if you ask me.” My buddy snickers. “Yeah, and I think the smaller cucumbers probably have a really good personality, and I bet they’re really funny and stuff,” he says. “Oh, for sure,” I reply. “Couldn’t ask for more than that. Those bigger cucumbers” – here I point at the 9 inch and up category -“those are just egregious. No one needs a cucumber that big.”
I guess there were other vegetables too, but we spent most of the time looking at the cucumbers and zucchinis, trying to riff out a series of jokes that were, at best, juvenile, and at worst, overdone. They’re coming out with a new season of Beavis and Butthead, apropos of nothing, and it’s pretty good.
In the grass ring on the midway, there’s a parent-child lookalike contest. There are predatory birds on display in one building, and tropical reptiles in another – alligators leering at families like they’re lunch. Everywhere there are funnel cakes, face paint, and couples holding hands. It all blurs around me in one loud, neon fuzz, and I stumble through the crowd, trying to buy oysters and beer in one fluid motion. I’m drinking a hazy IPA in the Sluice Box, something they brewed up special for the fair. It’s OK. My friend is looking at snow machines on Facebook Marketplace as we drink our beers, occasionally asking for my opinion on an early 2000s RMK or a beat-up Arctic Cat. It’s a seller’s market, I’ll tell you what.
“Are you familiar with maple syrup?” the bright-eyed, enthusiastic lady manning the Michigan syrup booth asks me, without a shred of irony present in her voice.
“Uh… as a concept, I guess,” I respond, unsure of how to answer such a straightforward question. It’s like asking if I know what a sandwich is. I’ve eaten pancakes before.
Not even the fair is immune to the political, especially considering the year, and I count two Lisa Murkowski booths within 200 feet of each other. Her main Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka is here, of course, and so is Palmer’s state senator. One of Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s higher-ups is here; I recognize him from the Trump rally. And the right to life booth, as always, persists. But none of it feels overtly hostile. We’re all here, making sweaty, sugar-laden beasts of ourselves, politics be damned.
“What kind of cotton candy should I get – pink or blue?” This from my little sister, as I wait in line with her to buy sugar spun into clouds for seven dollars.
“I don’t think it matters,” I respond. “They both taste the same.”
“But what kind?” she persists. Eventually, she chooses pink, and I try a piece. Tastes like pink.
Eventually, I stumble out of the exit gate, afflicted with meat sweats and a lighter wallet, trying to remember where the hell I parked. Parallel to the traffic cone, a few hundred yards back from the – ah hell, hit the key fob, we’ll find it eventually.
I hadn’t been to the fair in years, since before college, and what struck me at first was how little things had changed. The institution remains, as always, pretty carved in granite. You see it, though, with new eyes, as a Taxpaying Adult With A Degree And A Credit Card. This is our last big hurrah, as a state, before the dead of winter sets in and everyone sits in front of those Vitamin D lights and tries not to go stir-crazy.
Besides hunting season, this is it, and so we pack experiences in so we can keep them stored up for the winter, to sip off of during the cold, dark Februaries of the soul. “Remember when we held the alligator and then ate a brick of fries?” That’ll keep you going for a few days when the sun is nowhere to be seen and the snow machine won’t start and the snow beats against the window pane and you’ve already watched all the new episodes of Better Call Saul.
I entered a raffle for a whole pig, butchered and packaged, and I hope I win. God bless the State Fair.
Jacob Hersh was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He recently graduated from Washington State University with a degree in political science. He’s back in Alaska taking a year off before he attends law school. He’s been described as neurotic, emotionally distant, and unhealthily obsessed with national politics – all by the same person.