The Minnesota State Fair opened this morning, as the first of nearly 2 million expected visitors worked their way through the French fry stands, the pig pens and the midway rides. Fears of a potential swine flu epidemic were muted, and the food was as daunting as ever.
Thousands of people joined in and streamed onto the grounds to renew the Minnesota State Fair tradition that now dates back more than 150 years.
Many fair-goers arrived early to wait in line and be among the first entrants. There's just something about a pronto pup breakfast, the smell of hogs in the morning and an open-air coffee stand.
"I just like being here early in the morning, when it's nice, clean, new," said Richard Beaver of Woodbury, who waited in line at the gates on Snelling Avenue. He was among the first entrants.
But not the first, as his wife, Patty Beaver, pointed out.
"It's on his bucket list to be first in line," she said. "We've never made it in 22 years. But I like coming because you get to see the fair come alive — the first day, especially."
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As ever, there were new wrinkles. Fears that a new strain of flu, H3N2, is circulating in pigs and could grow dangerous sparked controversy earlier this week. The threat prompted posted warnings not to touch pigs exhibited at the fair, even though experts say the virus can be airborne.
Fair-goers like Debby Johnson of Inver Grove Heights were undaunted. The swine barn was among her first stops.
"Pigs are my favorite," Johnson said. She'd heard about the flu threat and she did stop to wash her hands on the way out of the swine barn. But she wasn't afraid, she said.
On the other end of Judson Avenue, it was sheep that caused a stir. At the Holy Land Deli, on the southeast corner of the International Bazaar, Majdi Wadi fried up the latest of the fair's long tradition of daring delicacies: lamb fries.
"Which is actually lamb testicles. It's a very traditional delicacy item in the Middle East," Wadi said. "Normally served in the holy holidays and the second day of your marriage. If you get married, the second day, it's one of the things you eat in your breakfast."
At the fair they're deep fried, or grilled without batter for those who require a gluten-free diet. And what are they like?
"Liver," says Gerri Bakun of Columbia Heights, who bought a basket to share with her daughter, Nicole Pinkosh. "They have kind of like the texture of liver. But not unpleasant. They're not bad. I think they taste good. Yeah. I would eat these again. I would probably eat this whole thing myself."
Another recent debut, camel on a stick, has morphed this year into camel meat sliders — little dromedary hamburgers. And funnel cakes come in the red velvet variety this year.
But not all the novelties are food-related.
The Stratosphere Ride tops the midway with spinning swings suspended from a 190-foot tower. There are four new kid's rides, and a Minnesota wine expo has moved in where the Epiphany Diner used to be.
Even Metro Transit is getting into the act, bringing a "super hybrid" bus to display. It's one of just two experimental models from Canada-based New Flyer, which builds buses in Minnesota using technology from BAE systems and Thermo King, which also have Minnesota operations.
Metro Transit general manager Brian Lamb says super hybrids may put Minnesota on transit's cutting edge. The buses run many systems on electricity, rather than mechanical or hydraulic power from the engine &mash; if one can envision a 40-foot long, 10-foot tall Toyota Prius, the super hybrid bus might be it. They cost about 50 percent more than standard buses, but Lamb says it's likely they're worth it.
"A standard bus, when you look at the operating costs associated with less fuel efficiency, the additional local investment gets a payoff in three to five years," Lamb said.
The super hybrid is scheduled to be officially unveiled at the fair on Friday, and it'll hit the streets in the Twin Cities in early September.
MINNESOTA STATE FAIR: IF YOU GO
• The Minnesota State Fair is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day in Falcon Heights, but it closes an hour early on Labor Day -- the last day.
• Regular admission is $12, $10 for seniors and children, and kids under 5 years old get in free.
• For a complete calendar of events, and schedules for the Minnesota Public Radio booth at Judson and Nelson, click here.