By Mark Fischenich firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mankato Free Press
---- — There are no south-central Minnesotans carved in butter at the Minnesota State Fair, and none will be headlining a concert at the Grandstand. No Mankato restaurants are on hand serving up deep-fried Schwarma curds or Jake's Pizza-on-a-stick.
But hundreds of area residents will be part of the State Fair experience this week and next, not even counting the 4-H kids with their livestock and crafts. Marching bands will be parading across the fairgrounds, local lawmakers will be manning government booths, vendors are selling their wares, and a few will be providing entertainment on a smaller stage than the Grandstand.
Among the 17 colleges and universities with booths in the Education Building is Bethany Lutheran College. The Mankato college sat on a waiting list for three years before a spot opened up, and Bethany is glad to be part of the mix, said Lance Schwartz, one of people pushing to get the college to the fair a decade ago.
Getting a spot is only the first step, said Schwartz, director of institutional communication at Bethany. Next comes catching the eye of fairgoers at a place where there's some serious sensory overload.
Even in the relative quiet of the Education Building, the competition for attention is fierce. St. Thomas University, for instance, recreates in its fair booth the iconic Kasota-stone archways of its campus.
Bethany has doubled the size of its booth and uses a video slideshow, carpeting and halogen lighting to spiff it up.
Then there's the requisite give-away. Schwartz sees other colleges giving away fancy recyclable bags or even battery-powered handheld fans, at least in limited numbers. Bethany is more economical.
"We have the infamous eraser-on-a-stick," he said. "A pencil."
None of that matters too much to the people that Bethany is really hoping to connect with: high schoolers seriously shopping for a college and Bethany grads. The potential future Bethany students get a good first impression of the Christian liberal arts college, and the alumi often sign the guestbook with up-to-date contact information before reminiscing about life at the college going back to the 1950s.
"It's fun in general to be at the fair, but visiting with the alums is always a neat experience."
Mankato eateries haven't taken the plunge and set up at the fair. No Pagliai's Pizza or Wagon Wheel Cafe stands.
There are, however, a couple of opportunities to imbibe some southern Minnesota flavor.
The August Schell Brewery in New Ulm has a presence and the Kemp's state fair booth will be offering visitors an ice cream flavor inspired by a Mankatoan. Amy Jordan's suggestion — "Funnel Cake A-Fair" — was among more than 260 flavors submitted in the Hometown Favorites contest, but one of just three finalists.
Fairgoers can taste "Funnel Cake A-Fair" and the other finalists and then vote. Kemps will mass produce the winning flavor for sale in supermarkets.
High school marching bands from New Ulm and Waseca are slated to march in the State Fair parade this year. Mankato-based old-time band Kris and the Riverbend Dutchmen will be performing at the International Bazaar. And fairgoers will also be able to hear a North Mankato voice in this year's MSF Amateur Talent Contest.
Joey Booker, a West High School graduate, will perform Michael Buble's "Home" at the Leinie Lodge Bandshell on Sunday night.
"This is my second time," said Booker, who needed a top finish at a local fair to advance to the semifinals in St. Paul, which he also did in 2011.
While the show is for amateurs, the competition is impressive, the sound equipment and technicians are top notch and the crowds are big, said Booker.
"There's so many talented people there," he said. "I'd love to win, but that's not my main goal ... . I love to sing and hopefully be able to touch people's hearts when I do sing. That's why I do it every time."
Several area lawmakers will be greeting people passing by the Minnesota House of Representatives booth, encouraging them to fill out a survey on issues facing the state and offering them the opportunity to give opinions or seek information.
Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, has volunteered three times for the fair duty and will be there again on Friday.
"It's a fun and lively place full of energy," Brynaert said.
Maybe a half-dozen times during a two-hour shift will a fair attendee want to get into an intense political discussion, but the bipartisan booth isn't about politicking.
"It's really just an environment to say, 'Hey, government wants to get into the state fair atmosphere, too,'" Brynaert said. "'We're part of what makes Minnesota great, too.'"
She usually brings a family member along, but they tend not to stick around the House booth. The fair offers more compelling options than two hours of civics, so Brynaert sends the husband or daughter off with her blessing and an assignment: scout out the food options.
This year, Brynaert's already put a new fair item on her must-try list.
"Chocolate-chili ice cream," she said. "I thought, 'I have to track that down. That sounds interesting.'"
Schwartz and Booker, after providing educational information and a soothing solo, respectively, will also go in search of food before leaving the fairgrounds.
Schwartz, traditionally a cheese-curd guy, has a new favorite.
"Australian batter-fried potatoes are even better," he said.
And Booker said his choice is always the same.
"I'm a big fan of corn dogs," he said. "Every fair, I've got to get a corn dog."