We didn’t really go to see the overgrown pigs, the funny-eared rabbits, or even for the midway rides and the giant yellow bumpy slide. My family went to the fair for the food. My uncle John often planned his trips to Milwaukee from New Jersey around the fair dates. My sister and I followed my dad and his brother as they ambled around the fairgrounds, stopping every few minutes to replace empty beer cups or get a new bite to eat. We giggled as my uncle would swallow his last bite of one thing and immediately inquire after another. It started at around ten o’clock in the morning and continued until my sister fell asleep in someone’s arms.
We could always tell the building where the cream puffs were made by the lines of people pouring through the doors. Waiting in line, once we stood in it long enough to find ourselves indoors, large windows allowed fairgoers to watch in mouth-watering anticipation as hundreds and hundreds of creampuffs were cooked and assembled by ladies in hairnets and thin rubber gloves. People waited all year long for these creampuffs, and because the fluffy dessert was only available at fair time, they bought boxfuls to savor at home over the course of the next several days. There might have been other ways to get creampuffs in Wisconsin during the other eleven months, but they were not the same. State Fair creampuffs were special.
My dad only got the creampuffs in a box “to go” if some member of our family, like my mother, who was not really a “festival person,” was absent from the day’s festivities. He knew that the creampuff is best eaten fresh. My sister and father and I took our creampuffs out to a shaded bench, and tried to savor them without too much mess, which never worked because of my dad’s mischief. The two pastry halves were separated by a bounty of fluffy white cream, and my technique for creampuff eating involved separating the pastry to attack the cream first. Every time, as I began to carefully lick the cream with my dainty little tongue, my dad managed to sneak in and tap my hand up in the direction of my face so that it was covered, nose to chin, in creampuff. Following his example, my sister and I sometimes got him back, and he would laugh through the mess in his moustache and beard. We always prepared for this with plenty of napkins.
Uncle John has always been a rosy, smiling presence in my early memories of the fair. He and my dad play off of each other with ease and laughter. I remember the beers in their hands and my uncle talking about Millie’s Italian sausages, chili-dogs, buttery roasted corn-on-the-cob, and barbecue pulled pork sandwiches more than I actually remember him eating them. As often as my dad took a detour over to a food stand or beer tent, Uncle John would double it. The State Fair was a celebration of food, good German… Polish… no, Wisconsin food that made any other care fall away in the presence of those smells, tastes and textures. Life was an all-you-can-eat buffet. My dad and uncle encouraged me to taste a little bit of everything.
I didn’t like the bratwursts or sour kraut. I could pass on the corn dogs and the barbecue pork. And I found that the creampuffs often fell short of my built-up expectations for them, though I always had one. I ate hamburgers piled with lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup and mayonnaise. I ate fried cheese curds, mozzarella sticks in marinara sauce, and breaded fried cheddar on a stick. I lived for the sidewalk sundaes, scoops of vanilla ice cream in a double cone topped with fudge and sprinkled with peanuts and cherries. I loathed the stickiness of cotton candy on my fingertips but never let that stop me from taking the spun sugar by mouthfuls to disintegrate on my warm tongue. I ate chocolate custard and ears of corn in no particular order. I always asked for the elephant ear, no matter how full I was. I liked to save it for last because the soft fried dough covered in butter, cinnamon and sugar was the best taste to have in my mouth as we headed for the car and a sleepy drive home.
As the years passed, my father’s enthusiasm for the fair only grew stronger. Mine and that of my sister, however, waned some. As young ladies approaching our teenage years, we grew conscious of our bodies, and tried to curb some of what we knew to be our bad eating habits. We still enjoyed food as much as ever, but where there once was an orgy of ingestion there came to be an exercise in restraint, and we saved our savoring for select favorite fair foods. I gave up the cotton candy, the burgers, sundaes and fried cheese in favor of allowing myself a creampuff, purely for its face-messing tradition, an ear of roasted corn, perhaps a scoop of frozen custard, maybe a hot dog, and always, always an elephant ear. My sister became a vegetarian, and picky. Dad and Uncle John still encouraged us to try something from every place they stopped, saltwater taffy, a giant dill pickle, flavored milks, but we closed our mouths and clutched our stomachs with exaggerated groaning or eye-rolling, but really, waiting for the things we most wanted, the foods we couldn’t leave the fair without having pass over our lips.
Even today, I admire my father’s abandon when it comes to the fair food. The State Fair is an occasion, like Summerfest and Irish Fest, Thanksgiving and Christmas, but so much more. And I don’t know if it is the warm, outdoor environment or the food itself that gives him that certain glow, just that when he’s out there in the sun with the people and the delicious aromas surrounding him, his eyes take on a certain extra luminescence. His face always smiles. He loves sharing his fair-going experience with his family, whether his own brother and sister, his wife, his children or grandchildren. Going to the fair might be the last thing that any of us would want to do on a hot August day, but if Dad says, “Let’s go,” we’ll go. We’ll walk from beer tent to food vendor and back around again until our feet bruise just to see that smile, that Italian sausage pulled pork creampuff satisfied smile.