In the Whirled: The tribes that bind

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

When dining on a dish like deep-fried butter or fried Oreos or funnel cake at a county fair, every one knows it fair game on the calories.

Jeannine Stein, MCT

There’s a lot you can learn from a deep-fried Snickers bar.

Most especially when you’re standing elbow to elbow at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, otherwise known as the Minnesota State Fair.

Here in the Midwest we take our fairs seriously. After all, we’re smack in the middle of the grain belt, the land of milk and honey, corn and soybeans, hog and horse.

I am drawn every year to this spectacle, despite the crowd, the heat, the acres of walking and my aversion to fried food on a stick.

I am not by nature a crowd person. But just like Alexis de Tocqueville tried to find what made Americans tick in “Democracy in America,” I go to the state fair to find out why we come at all.

I study the throngs of people winding their way through the fairgrounds, looking for clues. There is no steady demographic. Old, young, middle-aged, wealthy and not-so-wealthy alike find their niche here.

Some come for the spectacle: the woman in the freezer carving busts of the state fair princesses out of blocks of butter; the dancing dog show; the magic tricks and rodeo and headline concerts in the evening; the mile-long strip of carnival rides.

Others come for agriculture: the barns of horses, pigs, sheep, cows and chickens. The blue-ribbon bundt cake, the thousand-pound pumpkin, the Grade A honey.

There is the education aspect: In the live birth center, kids cluster around a hatchery to watch a chick peck its way out of an egg. In the agriculture building, a professional beekeeper talks about harvesting honey. Master gardeners give tips on pruning apple trees. In the eco building you can learn about landscaping and installing solar panels.

Many come to the fair for the food, the good and the novel: deep-fried alligator on a stick, cheese curds, fried pickles, fresh-squeezed lemonade, mini donuts, roasted corn and bacon ice cream.

But as I look around, this is what I see more than anything: There are a great number of people at the fair who come simply because everyone else is there. As if by instinct, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

It seems human nature to want to gather. We’re riding on the heels of the Olympics, the greatest sporting celebration in the world. People of my parent’s generation remember the World’s Fair, which gave us the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle and showcased the head of Lady Liberty. On a local level, we gather at parties to celebrate a holiday, a birthday, a farewell or simply the arrival of a weekend.

Humans are inherently tribal. We see it in sports, religion, ethnicity and region. I see it in my own neighborhood, when the family across the street tells my boys to “get off our property.” They are protecting their tribal land.

Tribes can be a fantastically powerful thing. Just like that old pencil trick where you can break one but not a whole cluster, belonging to a group brings strength. It can garner pride in a heritage, a job well done or in a history riddled with persecution. One of the crowning gifts of membership in the LDS Church is the patriarchal blessing, which identifies our lineage and our tribe. Our gathering as wards and stakes is another way of creating tribes. (And if you’ve ever been part of a reorganization of a ward or stake, you know the emotion that goes into shaking up a tribe.)

The danger of the tribe is also obvious. The most common word associated with tribal is “warfare.” Just look at the perpetual violence in the Middle East, a heavily tribal area. Entire civilizations throughout history have been willing to wipe each other out for the sake of the tribe. Even in sports, where a tribe consists of a logo and a bunch of transient players, violence can bring down a celebration. There’s a tendency, as soon as a tribe is formed, to dominate, reign supreme and in the process stomp out competing tribes along the way.

Thankfully, the only tribal stomping at the Minnesota State Fair is the clatter of hooves in the horse barn. This is, after all, Minnesota, the land of low-key people who truly pride themselves in being “above average” and nothing more.

The tribal sense I feel here is one of locale. This is a celebration of the food that comes to our table, of the men and women who bring it to us, of both progress and history, and at the end of the day, some good old Midwest fun.

I think the world would be better off with more of this kind of tribe. Even if it does battered, deep fried and on a stick.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com.

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