The Fairness of American Fairs

Published in The Britton Journal on Augusts 30, 2017

“MOM, Mom, Mom—Elephant Ears! Elephant Ears! Oh, my gosh, Mom. Elephant Ears!”

This weekend, me and a fellow South Dakotan-turned-Idahoan grad student friend took off for Coeur d’Alene to see the North Idaho State Fair. A young boy screaming these excited declarations about something called Elephant Ears was the first thing we heard as we came in the front gate, where mini horses and bubble machines were strewn about to welcome us. Allison and I looked at each other and said the same thing.

We’re home.

Idaho and South Dakota are mildly similar in a few ways, but they’re also very different—something me and Allison (who came to UI from Brookings to earn her Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language) have felt often and felt deeply this past year that we’ve lived here. I didn’t expect the fair to be the thing that bridged the gap of differences between our two homes. But, as it turns out, it was.

The Coeur d’Alene fairgrounds were filled with the familiar attractions. Right in the middle of the vendor area was “The Dance Zone,” where a circle dance competition complete with homemade fluffy dresses was in full swing. The fair was abuzz about a butterfly show that was supposed to be taking place in the center lawn that hour. There were the typical lines upon lines of different kinds of fried foods. But one difference I did mark between South Dakota fairs and Idaho was that any kind of fried potato item comes about three times the size than you would expect (even at a fair). My curly fries came in the shape and the size of a cinder block.

Allison and I spent the majority of our afternoon walking through all the 4-H pens to look at the animals—and I think that’s what hit us the most. There was just something about the smell of cattle and pigs mixed in with giant poster boards and homemade crafts that lulled us like a lullaby.

This time last year, Idaho felt like the farthest thing from home. There was absolutely no way I would put the two states on the same level of comfort. But 365 days later, I have changed my tune. Before writing this column, I was reading an essay called “Finding” for a class and I underlined two relatable sentences: “It takes a while to make a place for oneself in unfamiliar surroundings. It can be done; man can do anything.”

I remember a moment last fall when I was having a particularly hard time with my transition that someone told me I should go to the fair that was coming to town that weekend. Take my mind of things—see the sights. I didn’t go—instead opting to lay on my couch alone. But now, I really wish I had. Because whenever you feel like you’ve entered a whole new world, there’s nothing like a fair to make you think that there are small pieces everywhere that are exactly the same.

And if you do not know, like neither of us did, Elephant Ears are large pieces of frybread, smothered in butter, cinnamon, and sugar. And they are delicious.