10/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Food on a Shtick: The Minnesota State Fair and the Republican National Convention

I'm sure I'm not alone among like-minded food professionals: watching the Republican Convention has, for me, resulted in a powerful urge to eat the most authentic, pure, simple, interesting, indigenous foods I can lay my hands on. I'm fairly certain that it's directly related to seeing, in all its gorgeous humanity, the largest contingent of ashen, pasty, gape-mouthed white men collected under one roof since Lou Goldstein played Simon Says in the lobby of Grossinger's.

At first, I was inclined to skip the Convention, but somehow, I just couldn't: I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame, like a car crash that you can't help but gawk at. There they were, in all their fake-spangled, cowboy-hatted glory. There were the ancient war heroes, stoop-shouldered and dreaming of years gone by; there were the former politicians with checkered, hidden histories they pray no one will ever discover, like the illegitimate children, the sordid affairs, the gay sex in the bathroom stall. There was George, looking for all he was worth like Alfred E. Neuman, patched in by remote to avoid being pelted by his own troops with eColi-tainted tomatoes. There was Mother Bush in her pearls, almost 3 years to the day that she made her infamous "things have worked out very well for the poor Katrina evacuees" comment. Ah, compassion.

Hunkered down on the couch with a stack of cookbooks next to me, flagging dishes I have made or intend to make, I couldn't help but stare and think: Who are these people? How did they get here? Why does Fred Thompson's voice make me think of Foghorn Leghorn? Why is it okay for these people to want government out of people's lives, except for women and gays? It doesn't matter what side of the aisle you fall on: the questions we all must ask are, Haven't they done enough damage to the economy; to the already unstable Middle East, to the environment; to the poor and the middle class; to the aged and the ill? Haven't they made a profound mockery of their own party? Haven't they lined their own pockets enough? Don't they understand that if Teddy Roosevelt was alive and well, he'd (to quote my malaproptic great aunt) turn over in his grave, right after beating his party-mates senseless with the butts of their own long-range hunting rifles? What would Jesus do? In the words of Max von Sydow in Hannah and Her Sisters,

"If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

Which is why it sort of made sense that, amidst all the egomaniacal foolishness of the Convention, I also noticed how incredibly pale and dyspeptic and queasy and belchy the attendees looked; men, women, children alike--it was like they were all feeling just a little bit fluish--like they had bad country club food, or one too many corn dogs, or too many sacks of sliders, or a few too many plates of fried dough cooked in rancid genetically modified canola oil produced from Monsanto seeds.

And perhaps they had: the renowned Minnesota State Fair, located at the fairgrounds in St. Paul (just a hop and a skip from the Convention Center) ran this year from August 21st through Labor Day Weekend, thus amounting to a solid fortnight of transfat-packed American culinary excess and eccentricity, dovetailing right into Republican excess and eccentricity.

I'm certain that many attendees stopped at the Fair first, and made a vacation of it to enjoy the vast array of highly unnatural, nuance-free goodies formed and shaped and molded and extruded and pounded into submission, designed to make simultaneous walking and eating an easier feat than it otherwise might be. Some of the foods-on-a-stick purveyed at the Fair this year included:

Scotch Egg-on-a-Stick
Puff Daddy-on-a-Stick
Pork Chops-on-a-Stick
Fried Swiss Cheese-on-a-Stick
Tater Tot Hot Dish-on-a-Stick
Pronto Pup-on-a-Stick
Macaroni and Cheese-on-a-Stick
Deep Fried Fruit-on-a-Stick
Fried Bacon-on-a-Stick

When I realized that the Fair and the Convention backed up to each other, I closed my eyes and envisioned Cindy McCain trying not to stain her red, puffed-sleeve suit while chomping on a pork chop-on-a-stick. And Joe Lieberman nibbling on a Macaroni and Cheese-on-a-Stick, his tie suavely thrown over his shoulder. I could see Sarah Palin chowing down on a good, 'ol Pronto Pup-on-a-Stick. Right after she shot it and skinned it in her garage.

Is this red food, or blue food? It's impossible to tell. But the question is, Why bother to sit, and partake of a meal--large or small, fried or steamed--when you can walk from booth to booth and eat the previous booth's offerings stuck on the end of a short pike, while pondering the next one? Why slow down and eat? Why bother to enjoy humanity's greatest pleasure--the enormously simple, elemental, and deeply satisfying act of sharing a civilized meal with others? Of actually respecting each other, the food we eat, and the peace that breaking bread with someone--a stranger, maybe--can bring. Why be mindful of food--so many of us don't have enough of it or can't afford it--when you can just turn it into American kitsch?

To be fair, food people speak of "food as art," and "food as society," and "food as culture." What we don't ever discuss is "food as joke."

In the coming days leading up to the election, I will be listening, closely, to John and Sarah talk about food and their relationship to it. I'll want to know how, exactly, they intend to feed the scores of hungry Americans who are forced to decide between dinner and their prescriptions, or staying warm this winter. I'll want to know precisely how they plan to keep our foods safe and our slaughterhouses ethical.

I'll want to know how they eat, and what they eat.

I'll pray it's humble pie, not served on a stick.

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