Concerts, carnival games, fried food and the butter cow: it’s State Fair season

What was once an agricultural showcase is now a huge statewide party

Today's expression: Come home with
August 31, 2023:

A "State Fair" is a huge statewide party featuring music, parties, food, games, rides, and more. What started as a way for farmers to show off their livestock and browse the latest farm technology has evolved into a statewide celebration of rural life. At the Iowa State Fair, a cow sculpture is made of butter.

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We are in state fair season right now—and I bet you have no idea what that means. Well, you will after today’s episode

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, it’s Jeff and this is Plain English lesson 603. Here at Plain English, we help you upgrade your English with stories about current events and trending topics. And in each one of our episodes, we also show you how to use an English expression. You can upgrade your English, learn about the world, and have fun at the same time.

Well today, you’ll learn more about summertime in America. On Monday, we talked about minor league baseball. Today, we’ll talk about the State Fair. Both of these topics—this is about summertime in the heartland, as we close out summer 2023 together. In the second half of today’s lesson, I’ll show you how to talk about winning a prize. The expression is “come home with.” And we a song of the week, which is very appropriate for this topic.

I think we’re ready—let’s do this.

Food, competition, rides: the wonders of the state fair

It’s late summer, and for Americans from coast to coast , that means it’s time to hit the State Fair.

A State Fair is a statewide, outdoor party. The tradition started in the late 1800s. The purpose was to promote agriculture. Many of you have been to conferences and trade shows. Think of this as a trade show for farmers.

In livestock competitions, farmers would show off their prized cattle, lambs, and hogs. There would be horse shows and dog shows; there would even be competitions for rabbits and sheep. Farmers would show off their vegetables and buy and sell seeds. They could browse the latest farm machinery and technology. Most of those state fair traditions survive in some form today.

Remember that at that time, back in the 1800s, there weren’t cars, there weren’t phones, so once a year, people would go to the state capital to do their networking and conduct business. State fairs usually took place in the state capital—not always, but usually. And state fairs featured the best competitors from county fairs earlier in the year.

A county is smaller than a state, so each county would have a fair during the summer to crown county-level winners in all the competitions, and those winners would represent their counties in the state fair.

Over the years, the economy diversified from agriculture to manufacturing and now to services. And farming today is much less a family occupation and is much more of a big business. But state fairs still exist. There are still livestock competitions. They still celebrate the agricultural traditions in each state. But they’ve turned into a big, statewide party.

At a state fair today, in addition to the livestock, you can find rides, carnival games, live music, and food, food, and more food. The biggest state fairs can draw millions of people over just a few weeks. Texas—you won’t be surprised to learn this—Texas has the biggest state fair, drawing over 3 million people per summer. But Minnesota, New York, Iowa, Wisconsin, and many other states all have big state fairs.

At the Iowa State Fair, you can see a sculpture of a cow. Big deal, you might be thinking. But wait: the cow sculpture at the Iowa State Fair is made of 600 pounds of butter. In Alaska, they have a cabbage competition: who can grow the biggest cabbage (one winner was 117 pounds—that’s a big vegetable).

In Alabama, they have pig races. Kentucky is horse country: over 2,000 horses and riders compete for prizes at the Kentucky State Fair. In South Carolina, you can watch a pumpkin-decorating competition. There are baking competitions, sewing competitions, even car stunt shows.

If you’re just there to visit, you can play all manner of carnival games and hopefully come home with a stuffed animal or a small prize. How many floating ducks can you shoot off the pond? How many consecutive baskets can you make from behind the line? How many balloons can you pop with a dart?

The fairs also have rides, Ferris wheels, bumper cars, and more. There are people who can draw your family in a cartoon, put your name on a souvenir t-shirt, or make a dog out of balloons. At the Illinois State Fair, there’s a Lego contest; there’s even a mullet competition to see who sports the most eye-catching mullet haircut .

The food is outrageous. Put your diet on hold for the day. Corn dogs, funnel cakes, deep-fried brownies—this is just the beginning. My favorite fair food was a deep-fried turkey leg; it was the size of my face. They also had something called a meat parfait, which was layers of mashed potatoes, brisket, and barbecue sauce in a cup.

Concerts are a big part of the state fair experience. Country music singers are usually in high demand, but so are rock and roll bands. Most fairgrounds have one big concert venue and different musicians playing each night.

The fairs usually last between 10 days and three weeks. But after those few weeks, everyone packs up and goes home—or they go to another fair. Most state fairgrounds have permanent buildings, but the majority of what you see—the rides, the food stalls—they’re portable. The vendors pack them up and move on to the next fair, or put them in storage until the next year’s fair season.


The Illinois State Fair—that’s where I used to live, Illinois—I have been several times. There is a butter cow at the Illinois State Fair, too. It’s in glass, it’s in a refrigerated case. And it’s on a turntable, so it rotates around and everyone can get a picture with the butter cow.

County fairs, I told you about them, they are just like state fairs, only smaller. They’re not in the state capital, they draw fewer people, less popular bands. This is rural, country entertainment, county fairs in the heartland. But they’re fun. And you should know about them. They’re not in the movies. You will not have seen them on your last vacation to New York or Miami or Atlanta or wherever. But this is a big part of rural American life, county and state fairs.

JR’s song of the week

JR picked a country song for today. It’s “Motorcycle Drive-By” by Zach Bryan. Zach Bryan is from Oklahoma, a rural state. And he played himself in the TV series “Yellowstone.” I mentioned “Yellowstone” in Lesson 579 . Anyway, on the show Zach Bryan plays himself playing at a county fair. And he plays this song on the show.

This was Season 5, Episode 7 of Yellowstone on Paramount+, in case you want to see Zach Bryan playing himself at a county fair. So this was a perfect song for today, which is all about those rural fairs. “Motorcycle Drive-By” by Zach Bryan is the song of the week, thank you JR.

Now, speaking of Yellowstone, the actor Kevin Costner came home with a Golden Globe Award in 2023 for his work in that series. And I’m about to show you how to use “come home with” in the context of awards and prizes.

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Expression: Come home with