Aging at the Wisconsin State Fair

Wisconsin state fair cream puffs

Time was, I would spend my birthday week in Montreal. Several birthdays beginning with the numbers 2 and 3 were celebrated by pedaling along the Lachine Canal, plummeting down the drops on Le Monstre, or being quizzed by a confused waitress at Schwartz’s for putting Russian dressing on my smoked meat.

Then I moved to the Midwest and lost easy access to my beloved Quebecois birthday custom. Had I gotten the chip off my shoulder about Milwaukee sooner, though, there wouldn’t have been any problem. It took me three years, but when I finally made it the 94 short miles from Chicago to Brew Town in 2006, I fell in love. How much in love? With Ryan, our favorite place to spend Chicago weekends is in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward.

And then I discovered the Wisconsin State Fair. Growing up in New York City, the only state fair I knew as a child was the traveling one that used to set up shop in all its ghetto unglory in the Shea Stadium parking lot. Visiting Phoenix in my late teens, Arizona taught me what a real state fair was all about: barns, and midways, and 100 ways to fry food and serve it on a stick. (Indeed, there was a moment when I got to marry my love of Montreal with my fascination with the state fair vibe–at a bucolic Parc Jean-Drapeau food festival I clearly remember lounging on a bale of hay eating bison stew. But I digress.)

But the Wisconsin State Fair took me by surprise. The 500-acre, barn-after-barn enormity of it. The achingly friendly vibe of it. The entire pavilion given over to the on-site production of ecstasy-endowing cream puffs as big as your head. The terror-inducing, 10-minute skyride over beery music pavilion after beery music pavilion. That the fairgrounds are permanent and have been there for a century. That where they’re located is not at the edge of the metropolitan area, but instead in West Allis–which is as close to downtown Milwaukee as Oak Park is to the Chicago Loop.

State Fair is always 11 days over the first two weeks of August. And conveniently, my birthday is always in the first week of August. Truly, it is a match made in heaven. Even the year (my first) that my in-direct-sunlight injudicious imbibing led to my head on a table at the Public Market and a seasick ride home on the Amtrak Hiawatha. Even the year (last) when Drama Bill Bill Crazy Pants came along and was dramatic. Doesn’t matter. It’s State Fair. When you’re done carrying on, just pass the Spotted Cow. And maybe a loaded baked potato.

This weekend, I’m turning 43 years old. If you want to find me–or Ryan, for that matter–head for West Allis and look for the guy wearing a yarmulke.

And eating chocolate covered bacon on a stick.

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