Dairy Queen

Published in Gourmet Live 05.23.12
Sure, wandering the state fair is an afternoon of fun, but working it? Nichol Nelson recalls her days manning the milk concession at the Minnesota State Fair

The all-you-can-drink milk booth

I still have nightmares about the spills. The icy jolt of a lapful of foamy, white milk surging from a broken tap isn’t something you readily forget. The first time the spigot malfunctioned, the handful of us working the counter thought it was an anomaly. But this milk bath turned out to be a daily occurrence, and we all took turns enduring the misery of sopping jeans slowly curdling in the late-August sun. That’s what it was to be part of the team at the all-you-can-drink milk booth.

The summer after sophomore year of high school, a job at the Minnesota State Fair sounded fun: other kids my age, lots of boys, decent money. That was before those spills, of course, and before I understood what it was like to serve a never-ending throng of people: They’d paid their 50 cents. They wanted all the milk they could drink. We tried valiantly to keep up with them, smiling even as the sharp plastic milk crates we perched on cut deep, diamond-shaped lines into the backs of our thighs. Serving food at the Minnesota State Fair can only be accomplished in increments—minute by minute, hour by hour. The crowds are monstrous, and their appetites are legendary. Yes, the food vendors have home-field advantage, but trust me—it was like playing against the Yankees. We never had a chance.

Fairgoers may look cheerful enough, but don’t be fooled—they are a swarm of starving locusts, stopping at nothing in their quest to consume. Chocolate-chip cookies by the bucketful. Battered candy bars. Blazing-hot mini donuts fresh from the fryer. The ubiquitous deep-fried cheese curds. Grease-smeared wrappers and empty soda cups pepper the ground around every jumbo-size trash can, none of which can be emptied often enough to contain the by-products of this endless appetite. Vendors make cash hand over fist during the 12 days of the fair, and they know there’s no money to be made in hawking fresh fruit.

To most Minnesotans, in fact, the fair means food. Yes, there are the secondary attractions—a bustling midway, 4-H competitions, parades. It’s a Midwestern affair, this celebration, born of our agrarian history. The “Great Minnesota Get-Together” began as a state family reunion of sorts, a place for farmers to show off prized pigs, gawk at new tractor models, and connect with their cohorts.

Today, the state still has a thriving agricultural scene, but as fair attendees have become increasingly citified, the food has become the draw. And these days, the shtick is sticks. To aid and abet the strolling masses, vendors have devised ways to spear everything from deep-fried alligator to pork chops on wooden sticks. The hordes mill about happily, munching infinite variations on what are essentially grown-up lollipops.

That sweet-16 summer I spent working for the state’s dairy association actually began with a different job description: milk shake maker in the dairy building. But after spending a day standing at ice cream machines, watching likenesses of the fair’s Dairy Princesses being carved into life-size butter sculptures across the room, I gratefully accepted a “promotion” working at the affiliated milk booth two doors down. At least I could sit, I thought, so I left ice cream behind for my version of the Great White Way.

I should have stuck with the shakes. The milk booth was a serious operation. A refrigerated tanker was parked behind our stand, and a giant black hose snaked into the booth, carrying a copious supply of milk to those temperamental spigots. Out front, the lines were insane. Fairgoers love a bargain, and two quarters got them what they wanted: cup after cup of ice-cold milk, to wash down all those corn dogs, cheesy nachos, and deep-fried Snickers bars.

For diversion, we could sometimes see past the crowds to the outdoor stage opposite our booth, where three times daily, a troupe performed aerial acrobatics. The soundtrack between shows? Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits. Hour after hour, day after day. Fourteen tracks—we counted—from “Swingtown” to “Wild Mountain Honey.” Bright sun, bad music, spoiled milk. Hungry yet?

Truth is, I was. Everyone who worked those seemingly endless days was starving. Feeding people is hard work. I had access to milk shakes—and milk, of course—but after two days, just the sight of ice cream turned my stomach. The crews throwing breaded nuggets of cheese into hot oil felt the same way, as did the teams baking tray after tray of chocolate-chip cookies. So we traded.

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