Thursday, August 24, 2017


1953 was the first year Sun Prairie held its corn festival. I can't pinpoint the first year my parents took us but it was pretty early on. I do remember is was after the festival had moved to Angell Park, next to the roar of the track where the midget racecar events are held.
The venue hasn't changed over the years and this year wasn't any different although the days of free corn have long since been replaced. I had hoped to hit the dirt floor of Angell Park earlier during the run of the festival but didn't end up making it until the last few hours of the last day of the event.
The whole eating frenzy is a four-day festival starting on Thursday with a parade and running through to Sunday
when the corn steamers are closed down and the conveyer hoisting the dead husks into a dumpster has stopped moving.
The corn, that was available all during the event when I went as a kid with my parents and then as a teenager when I copped the keys and drove out with friends, was now only available on the last two days and then only from noon till seven.
Still most of the events charm remained with the ears of corn handed out at two bucks an ear or seven dollars for a tote that could be filled with a minimum of a half dozen golden cobs of sweet, sweet corn.
Once you've purchased your ear or tote you get the opportunity to have your corn rolled in huge tubs of salted butter.
Then, your hands glistening with real butter, you make your way to the salt trees in the hopes that your golden treasure won't slip away before those beautiful kernels can make it to your salivating mouth.
Here's a tip: The corn is steamed in the way we always make our corn at home and I think this is the only way to do corn. You take your corn leaving it in the husk and dump it on the middle shelf of your oven that you've cranked up to maximum heat. You don't pre-wet it, you don't open the husk, you just leave it there for twenty minutes. Then with asbestos mitts on both hands you pull the corn out of the oven, strip off the husks and dump the steaming cobs into basket. Keeping the corn in the husk allows the juice and sweetness to stay securely intact without drying out the corn. It always amazed me the number of people in the supermarket who rip off the husks right in the store and then go home with there naked ears and either boil the corn or roast it to a dry and tasteless mush.
The lines for the totes can stretch for blocks but when I finally made it to the fair it was close to six on the last day and the line was only a twenty to twenty-five minute wait.
It was enough to make think twice but after I saw one guy with a baby strapped to his chest go through the line twice and devour every ear they had piled into his cardboard dish I figure I could at least grab a single ear.
I took my ear by its unwrapped husk, rolled and salted it and then since I went by myself I grabbed a space on a concrete pylon big enough for my butt out of the way of most of the other eaters. The pylon was just outside the midget racetrack.
The roar of the racecars overpowered any other sounds. The only thing I could hear was the internal crunch of corn as I bit into it. The one thing I hadn't counted on or remembered was the amount of mud these cars can throw around. Even with a fifteen-foot fence covered with a tarp running the length of the oval I still managed to get pelted with mud balls as the cars skidded around on the other side of the barrier.
Unfortunately, the single ear of corn only wetted my appetite. Since by that time it was close to closing for the concessions a church group with their own tent was hawking a big discount. They were pushing root beer floats for two bucks and cookies a half-dozen for a dollar.
In addition to the races and the corn the other draw has always been the midway.
As a kid I wasn't much interested in the rides especially the ones that spin. I could never understand the thrill of vomiting on a friend or stranger. As an adult the feeling hasn't changed but there's such visual beauty in a midway and that was one of the reasons I wanted to go to the fair in the first place.
Once I finished my corn and root beer float I made my way past the kiddie blow-up jungle and then into the midway
where you could buy for ride tickets if you were so inclined
I would have opted for the games where my chances of actually walking away with something more than a stomachache had better odds.
Although what one is supposed to do with giant purple hippo bets me
And I have to admit that the midway does provide more than one way to torture your stomach and your teeth. There's always enough sugar in candy apples and cotton candy to make a whole segment of the carnival going population enrich all the local dentists.
And what would a festival be without the opportunity to purchase bubble blowing guns, paper umbrellas and the current ubiquitous spinner.
I think I came away having paced myself to a degree that my stomach didn't hate me, my teeth didn't squeak with sugar shock and my eyes got to delight in the beauty of a great Midwest tradition.

Albino Sword Swallower at a Carnival, 1970
Diane Arbus, photographer
Represented by Gagosian Gallery

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