Garrison Keillor At The State Fair In the July 2009 National Geographic, Garrison Keillor, host of public radio's A Prairie Home Companion, listed the Top 10 joys of the State Fair. Keillor talks about what made the list, from food on a stick to oversized swine.
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Garrison Keillor At The State Fair

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Garrison Keillor At The State Fair

Garrison Keillor At The State Fair

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, step right up, ladies and gentlemen. Step right up. In a few weeks, the gates will swing open at fair grounds across the country, and for a few precious days, there will be music, rodeos and talent contests, parades of sheep, pigs, and cattle and food - fritters, spudsters and gator on a stick.

In the latest issue of National Geographic, writer and broadcaster Garrison Keillor enumerates his top 10 state fair joys. Be hypnotized. Gawk at cows. Indulge in fried Coca-Cola.

What is your number one state fair joy? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And if you want to see the photos that accompanied Garrison Keillor's piece in National Geographic, you can go to that same Web site at npr.org.

And joining us now from - where else - St. Paul, Minnesota, is Garrison Keillor, the host of "A Prairie Home Companion," the author of the Lake Wobegon novels, most recently "Liberty."

Good to have you with us again.

Mr. GARRISON KEILLOR (Host, "A Prairie Home Companion"; Author, "Liberty"): Good to be with you, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thanks. And I was interested to know that among your joys, the one you say Midwesterns have a hard time admitting to is being part of the throng.

Mr. KEILLOR: To be in a crowd, we are people who travel around in cars and we have large homes and we like to sit in rooms by ourselves. And for us, the state fair is one of our only opportunities to get into a throng of people and to be jostled and to bump along like a twig in the river.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And to find ourselves amongst the common people, all of whom, as you note, like a dog, sniff us and find us one of them.

Mr. KEILLOR: Yes, we are one of them. We are much more like each other than we would believe in our private hours. In our private hours, we imagine that we are idiosyncratic and eccentric and the only people like us in the world. And we go to the state fair and we become mammals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And there are plenty of other mammals around.

Mr. KEILLOR: Lots of them. Lots of them. And that's one good reason why public radio should be at the state fair, to realize that the people who listen to public radio don't necessarily look like our stereotype of listeners. They're not all, sort of high tone people, you know, in L.L. Bean outfits. There're all sorts of people who listen to us.

CONAN: Have you ever done a broadcast from a state fair?

Mr. KEILLOR: We do it all the time, do it every year. And I love it.

When you stand up in front of the crowd who can hear you but they can also hear the Ferris wheel, and they can hear barkers down at the midway, and they can hear animals, and they can small cotton candy - you really have to bear down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

You can't just sort of stand up there and camp. You have to really make them listen.

CONAN: The thing that I think, first assaults your senses is the smell.

Mr. KEILLOR: Yes, the smell and the sound and the presence of other people. It's sort of the opposite of the Internet. It's the mirror opposite. And the more we all live in this virtual world, I think the more we need to preserve these actual things. Like a state fair, where people talk to you and try to sell you things and where you see where your food comes from, and you mingle with people you've never seen before.

CONAN: And I hadn't thought of it this way, I guess, until I read your piece. But, yes, of course. It's a harvest festival.

Mr. KEILLOR: It is. It's all sorts of things all wrapped up into one. And it changes over time.

But one thing it is that I think people don't enjoy enough, is it's a festival of salesmanship and pitches. And it's a great chance to walk up to people who are standing behind counters and ask them, how does this work? What's the advantage of vinyl siding? What does the Republican Party believe in? You know, what is the Methodist church about?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KEILLOR: And they're there to tell you. It's an amiable place where people will look you in the eye and give you a spiel. And you can listen to it, no obligations, say thank you very much, and go on your way.

CONAN: Though, you might get a different reception if you say how does these ring toss work with nobody wins?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEILLOR: Right. Exactly. But it's there for everybody. And I just pray that it survives.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest, of course, you know the voice, Garrison Keillor; 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org. And Charles is on the line from Tulsa.

CHARLES (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, Charles.

CHARLES: Oh, I just wanted to make a comment on - I've heard how Mr. Keillor talked about the atmosphere at the fair. And they started pre-selling tickets for our local fair, here in Tulsa, Oklahoma about a week ago. And it just - it got me thinking about, you know, the whole package. I mean, I love the fair. I just love walking through and seeing all the exhibits and the rides and the crazy stuff that you never seen anywhere else.

CONAN: If there's one crazy thing you never see anywhere else that you had to pick out, what would it be, Charles?

CHARLES: Oh, probably just the vast assortment of deep fried stuff on a stick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Everything from, you know, we've got gator on a stick here, and then they've got the deep fried Snickers bars, cheese curds, just - it's totally unhealthy and a once-in-a-year deal, you know?

CONAN: Once a year, your arteries can stand to be clogged a little bit.

CHARLES: Yeah. Something like that.

CONAN: Garrison, what do you go to eat when you go to the state fair?

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, I have eaten it all before. I'm an older person, Neal, and so, you know, I've been around and these things aren't - cheese curds, deep fried cheese curds, of course, one would always have. And sweet corn, corn on the cub on a stick, you have to do that. And you have to taste and compare sausages, and compare the bratwurst to the foot-long hotdog and knockwurst if you can find that. So, there are certain things you have to do. A taco, I think, is necessary.

And in Minnesota, you need to go to the dairy barn. You need to get a vanilla malt and make sure that it holds up against vanilla malts of years passed. But that's about it.

CONAN: Charles, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CHARLES: Thank you so much.

CONAN: I'm glad you mentioned being an older person, you, at one point, describe one of the joys is, of course, the pleasure of having g-forces take your jowls back and however - or being an older person, you simply watch this happened to other people. I have been in aircraft to violent maneuvers. I've been in extreme conditions at sea, no problem. I can't do a merry-go-round.

Mr. KEILLOR: Hmm. There's - there are groups for this, Neal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And there's a therapy for this, just take a friend.

CONAN: Twelve step program, yeah.

Mr. KEILLOR: Go with a woman whom you're trying to impress.

CONAN: Absolutely. Here's an e-mail from Kathy(ph). My favorite thing to state fair is all the funky products being offered for sales. Some inventions that have not quite made it to store shelves yet: the glasses defogger, day-glowed colored stick, the multi-used vegetable dicer/slicer, the men with the microphones around every night demonstrating cookware. I am fascinated by all these products and I'm drawn in by the lure of the pitch.

And, Garrison, anybody who works with microphone has to recognize kindred spirits.

Mr. KEILLOR: The ability to talk and say the same things over and over, and to go on and on, and to sound excited and happy about it on the tenth day of a state fair, it's something to stand back and admire.

CONAN: Let's talk with Bill. Bill, with us from Charlottesville, Virginia.

BILL (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi.

BILL: I - although I'm calling from Charlottesville, Virginia I was a 11-year resident of Burlington, Vermont, and I was a frequent visitor to the Champlain Valley Fair. And our great joy at the Champlain Valley Fair, among many animals and other attractions, was a ridiculous game known as Fat Alberts. And this was a game which we affectionately called rat roulette.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay, tell us.

BILL: A small, white rat was placed in the middle of a roulette board which had a series of colors and holes on them. Participants would bet a quarter on the color, the wheel was then spun, the rat was let loose. And whatever color he ran to, that color was the winner.

CONAN: And if he just sat there?

BILL: He never did.

CONAN: He never did. Well, the skills of such animals, Garrison Keillor, are not to be denied.

Mr. KEILLOR: Sounds a lot like cow flop bingo, which they used to have at county fairs. I don't think the state fair would ever have anything so low grade as that.

BILL: It was somewhat low grade, but I'm not sure if it actually improved the midway or not, but it was a regular at the Champlain Valley Fair.

Mr. KEILLOR: As long as the rat enjoyed and didn't suffer.

BILL: It didn't seem so. There were more than one rat, but it didn't seem to suffer.

Mr. KEILLOR: All right.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Richard. Richard with us from Miami - Miama(ph), is that right?

RICHARD (Caller): It's Miami.

CONAN: Okay.

RICHARD: It's really spelled Miami.

CONAN: Oh, but it's pronounced Miama.

RICHARD: Right.

CONAN: There in Oklahoma. Go ahead.

RICHARD: It's the pineapple whip at the Tulsa State Fair.

CONAN: And…

RICHARD: Well, sort of an ice cream thing with a cone. But it's called pineapple whip. How are they make it, I have no idea, but it's delicious.

CONAN: And it only arrives once a year and only at the state fair?

RICHARD: At the Tulsa State Fair, yes, sir.

CONAN: Well, it sounds like it's probably worth the trip.

RICHARD: It is.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call.

RICHARD: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Email from Josette(ph) in Tucson. The absolute best thing is fried bread at the Indian Village Pavilion at the New Mexico State Fair. Most places have funnel cakes, same idea, only better. You can get them with pinto beans and green chili for lunch or honey for dessert. Wowie, zowie, she says.

And this from Dan. The state fair in Wisconsin, there's nothing better than deep fried cheese curds for dinner and funnel cake for dessert.

Hmm. We're talking with Garrison Keillor. He wrote a piece in this current issue of National Geographic called "Take in the State Fair: Top 10 State Fair Joys." He's joining us on the line from St. Paul.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And Peter's with us. Peter calling from Tallahassee.

PETER (Caller): Yeah. Thanks for taking my call, Neal. I'm a big fan of Garrison Keillor and of the - and of state fairs everywhere. My - one of my favorite things about the Iowa State Fair - I'm calling from Tallahassee, but I'm a native of Iowa. And one of my favorite things about that fair was the state fair singers and jazz bands. It was just great entertainment, unbelievable musical talent from Iowa high school kids. But they don't play it in the state fair anymore. And so there's a musical reminder at the state fair this year, it's a butter sculpture of Michael Jackson.

CONAN: I think the butter sculpture of Michael Jackson may have been vetoed.

PETER: Oh, no. So disappointing. Well, the butter sculpture will be there nonetheless. It's there every year.

CONAN: It is there every year. I have seen the butter sculpture. And Garrison, I don't know if you've seen a butter sculpture, but it certainly is something to - well, it's amazing.

PETER: It is a (unintelligible) spectacle.

Mr. KEILLOR: We have sculptures of beautiful young women in butter, which is a kind of complicated metaphor up here in Minnesota.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call.

PETER: Okay. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. KEILLOR: The Iowa State Fair is just one of the great fairs in America. I think the best pork chop I ever had was at the Iowa State Fair. And the antique tractors and farm implements that the FFA does. And they have a llama - a llama competition. Teenagers, 4H-ers showing llamas. It's just - not to be missed. It's so beautiful.

CONAN: Now, let's talk with Julie. Julie with us from Des Moines.

JULIE (Caller): Hello. I will agree wholeheartedly that our Iowa State Fair is a great state fair and the pork chops are in fact the best. And if you're lucky, one of the pork queens will serve you a pork chop.

CONAN: Wow. How do you arrange that?

JULIE: Well, you have your county - each county nominates, I guess, a state fair queen and then she - the pork queen is selected and then she works one of the booths at the Iowa pork producers' tent.

CONAN: And is this something that will be on her resume for the rest of her life?

JULIE: Absolutely. Front and center.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEILLOR: If I were a young woman, I would have mixed feelings about being a pork queen.

CONAN: I…

JULIE: Okay.

CONAN: It might be something that maybe after the age of 25 or so, might find its way to the second page - the nonexistent second page of the resume.

Mr. KEILLOR: I think so. I think so.

CONAN: Julie, thanks very much for the call.

JULIE: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Jeff(ph), and Jeff's on the line from Columbus, Ohio.

JEFF (Caller): That's the home of the Ohio State Fair, where we have a butter cow.

CONAN: Aha.

JEFF: Butter women are one thing, but there's nothing like a butter cow.

CONAN: Well, from butter once - I was working on the metaphor, but I'm just going to let it go, Jeff.

JEFF: Yeah. I can see that. But my memories are of the Woodstock Fair in Woodstock, Connecticut, where I grew up. It's not the same as Woodstock.

It goes back to 1858, and my memories are working as a boy scout on fire duty overnight. And early in the morning, I saw on the ground, covered with dew, a $1 bill. Fresh crisp $1 bill and I'd never run into so much money as that morning at the fair. My other memory is being at the fair on civilian duty, just having fun. I found a cherry bomb some kid had set in one of the booths with a burning cigarette as a delayed fuse. I heroically defused it and put it in my pocket, and then months later, used it to blow up a pumpkin on a Halloween.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I'm glad it didn't go off in your pocket.

JEFF: Thank goodness.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

There is - there comes a moment, Garrison, you write in your piece, when at the end of the day, as twilight falls, suddenly, you're sick of it.

Mr. KEILLOR: You feel remorse and regret. And you've spent your day overeating and being whirled around at centrifugal force. And now, you want to get on with your life and do something distinguished and good. And that's the final benefit of the fair, is that it propels you away as if on a slingshot to go off and to lose some weight, and to be disciplined, and to get things done.

CONAN: Let's go to Mary. Mary with us from Roseville in Michigan.

MARY (Caller): Hi. I love your show, Neal.

CONAN: Thank you.

MARY: And Garrison Keillor, you are my biggest - I love you, your terrific shows. Michigan State Fair…

Mr. KEILLOR: I'm the pork king here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I'm a big guy.

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, alrighty then. The Michigan State Fair has the Miracle of Life tent, where farm animals are born at various parts of, you know, days of the fair. And it's just a fascinating, fascinating thing that city folks don't often get to see.

CONAN: And what have you seen born at the Miracle of Life tent?

MARY: Calves and piglets and lambs.

CONAN: And this is sometimes not a pretty picture.

MARY: You're right. But it is always, always a big crowd gathered and jubilant when it finally happens.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And we'll end with this email from Grant in Robbinsdale. My favorite fair memory is singing "Amazing Grace" along with Garrison at the Minnesota State Fair grandstand, until it came to "A Wretch Like Me," and he pointed at us.

Mr. KEILLOR: I don't remember that at all. I'm sure I was not pointing at him, personally.

CONAN: It may have been a collective all of us, a wretch like we all are.

Garrison Keillor, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. KEILLOR: Thanks, Neal. Don't forget to go to the fair.

CONAN: I won't forget. Garrison Keillor is the author of "Take in the State Fair: Top 10 State Fair Joys" published in the July 2009 edition of National Geographic. And of course, you hear him every weekend on "A Prairie Home Companion." He joined us via Skype from St. Paul.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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