December 19, 2013 / Praxis
Barbara Brown Taylor discusses the revelatory power of the body and the challenges of practicing embodied faith in a twenty-first-century context.
March 9, 2015
The girl is wearing a tie-dyed shirt, comfortable jeans, her curly brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Perched on a stool next to the calf in his pen, she is telling us how to get a cow to give birth at the Minnesota State Fair. It takes careful planning, especially if you plan to do it year after year. Here, in this barn, this girl is a star. Here, in this barn, we are witnesses to what she experiences every day: the rustling hay and the stink of animals, the sensible shoes and the awkward teenagers who water the animals. She is sitting on a stool, and she is talking about a cow she owns that has given birth here, at the State Fair, over thirteen times. That kind of cow, she says to everyone and no one in particular, that kind of cow is only good for ground beef. You can’t get any good steaks out of a cow that has had thirteen calves. I am staring at the white paper attached to the calf’s pen that describes when he was born (less than twenty-four hours ago, here in this barn) and his name: Ferdinand. I think: sometimes I eat ground beef.
I wander past Ferdinand to the larger pen just to the left of him. There is a large black-and-white spotted cow lying down, sides heaving. There are people milling everywhere, pressed around the sides of the large pen. There is a small set of bleachers, a mini grandstand to watch the action. And indeed, that is why everyone is here. This is the Minnesota State Fair, and this is the Miracle of Birth barn. There are flat screen TVs hanging from the barn ceilings, a loop of sticky legs and hooves and heads being pulled out of various birth canals. A gangly boy sees me and my friend hovering by the sheep pen. I suppose you want to pet one, he says, and hoists up a two-day-old baby lamb for us to fall all over, rubbing the soft ears. What kind of life is this little guy destined for? I ask him. He says something about wool and being used for breeding. At six months old, this little lamb (name tag: Cosette) can start having lambs of her own, over and over again for as long as she is able. As we leave the barn, my friend Jen whispers to me: Imagine that kind of life. Jen is a successful doctor, a resident of Minnesota, friendly and welcoming and always sporting the nicest smile. She is also a vegetarian, a self-proclaimed “nutrition freak,” and greatly interested in democratic politics. We are here because we are interested in the absurdities of this great state, this great nation, this great fair. We go, we eat, and we are blessed.
Jesus once gave a sermon on the plain. He came down from a mountaintop to a level place where he could speak to his disciples and followers, to the devout or the curious. This sermon is carefully transcribed in the sixth chapter of the book of Luke, and it is markedly different from the more famous (and grander sounding) Sermon on the Mount. In Luke, Jesus upends everything we know about success:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. (6:20–23 ESV)
I look out at the fairgrounds, the flat lands overwhelmed by spectacle and noise, and I know they are here. The poor and the sick and the sad and the downtrodden—they are all hidden within plain sight. Even as much as we try to hide them, they are always with us. The cursed of this world, the blessed of God.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Minneapolis was the very large population of refugees and immigrants hidden away in this fine city, stateless wanderers who are drawn both by the existing immigrant communities and the excellent benefits the state provides. In this current decade, it is the East Africans who have been in need of some Minnesota nice—by some accounts, there are over 100,000 Somali people in Minnesota now. This is a shocking number of people for a state to quietly absorb, but Midwesterners pride themselves on their agreeable faces and reserved civility, and so at arms-length they gladly host people who are in need of a new place to call home. I am now used to seeing hijabs wherever I go, hearing the pleasing sound of Somali in my ears, experiencing the warm greetings and hugs of the adult language learners I teach, tasting ginger and green coriander in my tea.
Earlier that month, I saw a billboard for the state fair on the highway, highlighting the “seventy new foods at the fair” this year. There was a picture of a young Somali girl in a leopard-print hijab holding up a colossal “Blossoming Onion” (presumably, the Blooming Onion was trademarked). But I never see anyone who looks like that little girl at the fair. Everywhere I look it is a sea of homogeneity: white people, in various shades of overweight, eating and talking and laughing and walking as slow as you please. In my own neighborhood, the most diverse plot of land in all of America (according to the 2010 census) people from Guatemala and Honduras and Venezuela are busy taking care of their families. People from Somalia and Oromia and Ethiopia are cooking and caring for one another. Native Americans and African Americans are working at jobs, sitting on porches, BBQing in the parks and in backyards. They are doing all of the work that it takes to make it here in Minnesota; and for the most part, they do not flock to the fair.
The Minnesota State Fair is not the largest fair in the United States. (That would be Texas, y’all). But as many locals would be quick to assure me, this fair has the largest number of people in attendance—almost 2 million visitors in 2013, in a state of about 5 million. It is a really big deal. The first thing you notice when you walk in through the gates is how important it is to everyone. The older woman who cheerfully rips my ticket in two as I walk in says, Welcome to the Minnesota get-together! The people in VOLUNTEER T-shirts walk everywhere with great speed and purpose. There are vendors selling balloons and toys and bubble-making machines; there are large buildings enticing you with their promises of quilts and crafts and floral displays; there are people trying to sell you mops and blenders and a four-year commitment to the National Guard. But mostly, there is food. There are people selling food and people buying food and people eating food as far as the eye can see. This is why people go to the fair, we soon find out. They pay thirteen dollars to eat their way into a state of contentment: they eat what is bold or comforting, what their mother made for them when they were small, or what their doctor would never in good conscience recommend.
Jen and I don’t have a plan beyond experiencing whatever this place is. We are quickly overwhelmed. We wander through the crowded throughways. Later, people will ask me: Did you get the bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies? (No.) Did you get the all-you-can-drink cup of milk for one dollar? (Yes, chocolate.) Did you eat the original corn dog? (No.) Did you eat the famous state fair fries? (No.) Did you try the deep-fried cheese curds, twinkie on a stick, or pickles? (Yes, no, and no.) We do watch many, many people consume all of these products, and considerably more. I read somewhere that last year people spent a quarter of a billion dollars on food at the Minnesota State Fair. I understand now, crushed on all sides by the choice of what it is that I should be wanting, reckless with the possibilities.
But my mind wanders to the place I don’t want it to go, toward other statistics that I can’t forget. As I eat my deep-fried cheese curds, I recall that one in five kids in America are in danger of going to bed hungry, that 20 percent of our children are waking and sleeping and living in a food-insecure world. I think about the first time I saw kids smearing peanut butter on stale hamburger buns, the only food they could find to eat in their apartment. I think of the park across the street from my house, where all summer long they serve snacks and meals out of the community center, desperately trying to reach the kids whose only certain source of meals ends when school gets out. These summer meal programs reach only 35,000 kids in the state, leaving nearly 200,000 to get by as best as they can. I think about all the hungry kids I know by name, the ones my daughter has eaten with at the picnic tables in the park, the ones whose faces go with me wherever there is more excess and opulence than I can bear. These memories are a gift and a curse.
I try to forget, to muster up an ability to enjoy myself, to live in whatever moment this is. I page through the special pamphlet highlighting new and special foods at the fair and decide what I will eat next: spicy fried chicken in a waffle cone with gravy poured on top. I eat it while my vegetarian friend looks on with that stereotypical Minnesota nice politeness, my stomach feeling as satiated as I could ever want, until a short while later when I start jonesing for a mini apple pie.
Jen and I shuffle on with the crowds. Inside one of the large buildings there are displays on all things Minnesotan: crops and buffalo and pioneers. We move on past the county displays, toward the apple room. I am impressed to discover that the Honeycrisp apple was invented by students at the University of Minnesota. Next to the apples there is a large room full of shelves, each lined with cobs of corn. They look identical to me, the hundreds and hundreds of cobs, lined up floor-to-ceiling, but they have been judged and some have been found wanting and others have colorful ribbons awarded and attached. At the far wall, there is corn art: pieces made from corn kernels (and other seeds and grains), all delightfully kitschy. I pull out my battered phone in its purple rubber case and take pictures of corn Mr. T, corn Robin Williams, corn Frida Kahlo. I am giddy at this strange find, exulting in the weirdness of the state that I now call home, wanting to share it with everyone I know.
I am not from Minnesota, and in this moment it feels as disorienting and exhilarating, as if this were my first day here. In reality, I have lived in this state, a mere ten-minute drive from this very fair, for two years now. Two years is nothing to a Minnesotan, but it means a lot to a nomadic soul like myself, someone who has moved every two to three years since I was five years old. But the Minnesota I live in is very different from the one on display here at the largest get-together of the year. I’ve got two eyes in my head and I can’t help but notice that it seems like a great many people I live and work with—my neighbors—were perhaps not invited to this particular gathering.
Jen and I go to the dairy barn and take pictures of entire walls filled with various cuts of meat. We watch as people queue up for hand-scooped milkshakes. In the center of the dairy barn there is a large refrigerated room that slowly revolves, filled with larger-than-life busts of teenage girls carved out of butter. In the center of all the butter, there is a young girl with a mass of curly brown hair and a large puffy jacket—it is forty degrees in that room, I read on a plaque—sitting and smiling and waving at us, the crowd. There is another woman inside the room, and she is carving this young woman’s face into the giant yellow cube before her, every curl sculpted gently and tenderly. There is no way I could make this up. Every year hundreds of girls compete to be a county dairy queen, and the twelve finalists have their likenesses carved in semiliquid butter gold, which they get to take home. But only one is chosen to be Princess Kay of the Milky Way, with a tiara placed both on the proper head and the one made of butter. I see the pictures of the contestants: the girls are fair skinned and mostly blond; some have glasses and braces. It is all so strange; I cannot make sense of it. Girls who have looked exactly like these same twelve have been displayed here for the past sixty-one years. Everything in this place is working to explain what this means to me: it is a time-honored tradition is all, a way to celebrate hard-working values, a deeply harmless variation on American pageantry.
I ask the woman at the information booth about this later: what do they do with all of that butter? The info woman assures me that these girls are pillars of their communities who even use the occasion of a surplus of butter to better their worlds. “They do pancake breakfasts or corn roasts—and donate all of the money to their communities,” she tells me, her eyes earnest and serious. I am impressed at her knowledge of all things fair-related, and I walk off thinking about the practicalities, of what it means to shave off parts of your face, to slather it on various other foods that you sell to the same folks you grew up seeing all your life, folks who look exactly like you, who understand what it means when you are chosen to be a member of the dairy royalty.
I do not understand the honor of this, and that is what makes me an outsider. I am someone who snaps pictures to put on Instagram, to showcase the weirdness, to display to others what has already been displayed here. Am I making the fair an unsafe place with my cynicism? Am I ruining this largest get-together with my incredulity and my deep need to plumb the depths of my unease with being a white American who grew up in rural communities all over the country? I used to tell people I grew up sheltered—the homeschooled daughter of an evangelical pastor. When I was young, everywhere I went people looked like me, thought like me, ate like me. I was safe from the storm of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions.
When Jen and I leave the fairgrounds it is just starting to rain, the air heavy and warm with humidity. I see the only Somali people I will encounter that day, two women sitting on the grass with a makeshift henna stand that we walk past on our way to the car. They are there to capitalize on the throngs of eager-to-be-impressed people; I am impressed by their ingenuity and enterprise, struck by how very American it is.
Jesus said something else, right after he told us all who would receive the blessings of God. On that plain, so long ago, he told us who was in trouble: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
Reading the Sermon on the Plain, I see that the blessed and the doomed are lined up side-by-side, and it does not match up well with what I have been told to pursue my entire life. I have been conditioned to be safe and secure, to eat and to laugh and to marvel, to be liked and non-threatening and in constant search of the next amusement. I read Luke and now I see the blessed everywhere. Sometimes I see them in their absence perhaps, but I still see that they are a part of all of us. I see it even if I would rather choose not to.
This is the main trouble with Jesus. Once you are unsheltered, it is very hard to go back—though, of course, you are free to try. You are free to attend state fairs until you are satiated and satisfied, to see the sights that you know will amaze, experience the miracles of birth and dairy princesses and the seventy new and exotic fried foods. You are free to try, but no matter how much you do, you can’t forget about the rest of the land for very long.
Every good and perfect thing in this fair, and indeed, the entire world, is undercut by the deep sorrow and injustice that are also always present. I see evidences of this everywhere. There are no women of color being molded into butter right now, perhaps because there are so few people of color in management of farming operations, which might bring us to consider why this is, to think about who historically worked the fields of our land and who has profited off of them. I used to swallow these kinds of county displays and history presentations whole, but now I can’t help but think of all the missing history, those stories that wouldn’t make for a very pretty mural.
Like this: the largest mass execution in the history of the United States happened here in this state. Thirty-eight Indian men were hung at the same time, with President Lincoln in full knowledge and support. All of these histories of greed and violence and exploitation—the boarding schools, the internment camps, the collective misery of a culture and a land. This is all a part of Minnesota, to be sure, but there is no place for it at the fair, a place of celebration coupled with an understandable desire to forget.
As I imagine it, Christ would most certainly go to the Minnesota State Fair. He would eat food with pleasure, he would be amazed at the wonders man has wrought out of scraps of metal and electric lights, out of our determination to celebrate even as the world spins on faster than we can catch on. And he would always, always, be keeping one eye on the entrance gate, wondering who wasn’t there.
I left the fair troubled at our most basic desire to only be around people who are just like us, especially if we happen to be on the well-fed, financially secure side of things. The good news, as Jesus tells it, makes me tremble on the insides, understanding in a new way how he had nothing but warnings for the rich and satiated and the blandly happy: woe to you, for this life, this day at the fair, is your only reward. I know now, because I have been there, to the largest get-together in the state.
D. L. Mayfield
D. L. Mayfield lives and writes in the Midwest, where she currently is a part of a Christian order among the poor. Mayfield’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Image, Christianity Today, and The Other Journal, among others. She has a book of essays forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016.