Dairy Queen

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It was a classic barter system: my food for yours. Corn dogs and cheese curds were the top tier of the trading network (unless you’ve had them, you can’t imagine the addictive pleasure of these rich, salty curds)—and demand was high. But on hot days, our crew had the upper hand. Though there was no currency in plain old milk, I still had connections at the milk shake building, and wasn’t above calling in favors. Ice cream was pure gold. Everyone was desperate to get away from their deep fryers and hot ovens, and nothing sounded better than a frosty shake.

Each crew also had its own pet peeves. Among the battered-hot-dog vendors, it was the nonstop customer debates about nomenclature. “Pronto Pup” vs. “corn dog.” Really, who cares? The grilled-corn guys got folks complaining about the amount of blackening on each ear, as if they could control the temperature on each individual kernel.

I’d say, though, on the whole, we milkmaids had it the worst. The people lined up for refills delighted in comparing us to bartenders. And they all thought they were the first to think of this conceit. Every. Single. One. “One more for the road,” they’d drawl, slamming their cups onto the countertop and spraying my arms with droplets of their leftovers. “I better not have another, I’m driving.” “I don’t want to get pulled over on my way home.” Happy hour. Ladies night. Comedy gold.

But we did it. All of us. Somehow. At the end of the fair’s 12 days, as the operation owners counted their cash, we vendors and milkmaids staggered out through the fair gates, our shoulders slumped, our expressions dazes. I had milk in places I never imagined it could be—my pores, my fingernails, my shoelaces—and if I reeked of milk I could only imagine how my friends who’d been parked in front of a hot-oil fryer smelled.

I haven’t lived in Minnesota for more than a decade, but I brought my little boy back for a visit to the fair a few years ago. We dropped by the milk booth, of course, and when he caught site of the cups full of his favorite beverage, he began to whine. “Please, Mama?” he begged, raising his sippy cup. “No, sweetheart,” I told him, pushing the stroller with purpose. “We’ll get some lemonade.”

Nichol Nelson hails from Minnesota, but has worked as a food journalist—including six years as an editor at Gourmet—in New York and Los Angeles for more than a decade.

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