Friday, September 25, 2009

On State Fairs and County Fairs


RO: This week I spent some time at The Big E, New England’s legendary five state fair. I can’t remember the first time I went .. easily twenty years ago. My friend Alan (or maybe it was old boyfriend #2, Lee)turned me on to it. Milking contests, monster truck pulls, exhibitions of working sheep dogs, cooking contests and blue ribbons for the biggest pumpkins (this year's winer over 600 lbs.) What did a girl from Brooklyn know about stuff like that? It was all new to me and surprisingly enough, I loved it. Call it too many viewings of Green Acres when I was a kid.
Who knew there were so many different breeds of chicken – and that some of them were quite beautiful? Thery made it hard to order the chicken fingers so I went for salmon-on-a-stick and a baked potato – the two Maine specialities which have become my end-of-summer treats and must be consumed on every trip to The Big E. (Up until this year I resisted the infamous Big E cream puff. Be inner calorie counter went off the charts.)

For the last two years in addition to eating, shopping and admiring the livestock, I’ve been meeting readers at the CAPA booth (Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association) in the permanent Connecticut building and I did that again this year. But the main attraction is the fair. All those exhibits...all that food. People with straight day jobs reliving their rock and roll pasts..lots of garage bands performing covers of 80's hits. And what's the deal with the mops and the chamois cloths? Do people wait all year to buy their cleaning supplies?
In any event, there’s something – dare I say it – American about it. Anyone else have those cow dabs between their toes?

JAN: I've been to the Big E, and more frequently the Aggy Fair on Martha's Vineyard. You're right, there is something so American about it, you feel like Jimmy Stewart had got to be in the crowd somewhere. I have to admit the livestock don't do anything for me, but I love the fiddle contest.

RO: Jimmy Stewart. Or Paul Newman, or William Holden. Now that I think of it there were county fairs in a lot of movies from the 50's, which were the first grownup movies I can remember watching on television. Picnic and The Long Hot Summer. Men in suits, with hats and ties at a picnic. (I still love Picnic...Moonglow and I Could Write a Book were the two songs at my wedding.)
How about women in cocktail dresses with white gloves! How cute was Joanne Woodward? one like that at The Big E, but there was a sheep shearing contest that was a little like the scene from The Thornbirds...anyone remember that? Why in the world would Meggy Cleary want a priest when Bryan Brown was available all hot and sweaty? Bryan wasn't there. (Absolutely shocking that there's no pic available online of Rachel Ward salivating over a shirtless Bryan Brown...I must watch that miniseries again.)

No Jimmy Stewart or Joanne Woodward either, but I'll keep looking.

Maybe next year I'll wear a dress.
In the meantime how cool is this - some kid decorated a pumpkin to look like a puffer fish.
Future artist.

RHYS: Living in California, this is something I've never really experienced. We have a county fair and a state fair, but they feel like city folk pretending to relive the good old days. I mean--pie baking contests in Marin? I'm sure everyone got their pie from the same high end caterer who does their own soirees! And the State Fair in Sacramento is always too hot and too high tech, thrill rides etc. One of the things I love about New England is that feeling of stepping back in time. When we were driving through Vermont in the summer we had breakfast on a front porch in a small village. Local people wandered in and out for their morning cup of coffee. Everyone stopped to talk. I almost bought a house there on the spot.

RO: Yup, we New Englanders are just plain folk!


  1. In Maine, the Common Ground Fair, sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, starts today and runs through Sunday.

    It is a uniquely Maine experience.

    The fairground is in beautiful Waldo County, in the town of Unity. All of the food is local and organic. Lamb kabobs, lobster rolls, fresh apple cider and a local delicacy known as the pie cone, which is a cylinder of whole wheat pie crust into which they pipe the filling of your choice.

    There are loads of craftspeople selling handmade soap, leather goods, handknit socks and hats, pottery.

    There are demonstration tents (canning techniques, composting for city dwellers, raised bed garden dos and don'ts, how to fillet a whole fish) and kids showing off their goats and chickens.

    And there's a table for every (progressive) political cause you can imagine.

    No midway, no cotton candy, yet it is one of the most well-attended fairs in the state.

    Plenty of old hippies, but all kinds of other people too.

    Brenda B.

  2. Oh, the Indiana State Fair! When I was growing up we went every year--and it was so wonderful..the smell of "fried dough" with powdered sugar on it, and big pots of fresh corn, and popcorn and cotton candy. And corn dogs, too, of course. (I've never had one of those..I think they look disgusting.) all smelled fantastic.

    There were rides, too, I remember. And oh, those obviously-rigged carney games where you had to knock over a stuffed cat-looking thng with a baseball. ANd it was impossible.

    And lots of pavilions with cows and pigs. 4-H members, all proud, with blue ribbons on their stalls. And a horse show. It was very cool to be in the horse show. You could strut around in jodphurs and a little black hard hat.

    And--a baton twirling contest, which I think was held on the same dirt track where they had some kind of car races. Which, being relentlessly competitive, even at age 11, I entered. I had such dreams of being a majorettte, sigh.
    I stunk. But I loved it.

  3. I refuse to believe that there's something Hank is not brilliant at.
    (I know...revolting sentence...but you know what I mean.)

    The pie cone sounds fantastic. I'm thinking blueberry crumble.

  4. My best Fair memory is from Minnesota in 2000, walking the exhibits, arcades, and amusement park with a group of adult friends. My inclination is to eat and eat and ride everything possible -- the faster and more upside down the better -- and no one in the group would go with me, except one NPR Bureau Chief, who bless him, ate staggering quantities of deep-fried everything, topped the lot with cotton candy, and didn't puke when we rode the Tilt-a-Whirl a third time.

    Now that's Moxie! Cajones! Pioneer Spirit! Now that's a great inner ear.

    Made me proud to be American.

  5. Aren't we lucky to live in a country where you can get deep fried anything...Oreos...pickles..

  6. I so rarely eat fried food of any kind (tempura maybe once a year?), but if I go to the Fair -- okay, I have to try the weird fried stuff. Even fried Dr. Pepper, which we have here ...and I don't even drink soft drinks!

  7. I love the Washington County Fair, in RI, where my grape jelly won a white ribbon and my healthy iced oatmeal raisin cookies won a blue ribbon!