Localvore: A taste of the fair

By Ruth Rhodes August 17, 2009 07:44 am
Down at the fairgrounds, they’ve only just packed up the last of the midway amusement rides and swept up after the festivities last weekend.

Our family went on opening day. We toured the animal barns, rode the thrill rides, and put our 2-year-old on the green John Deere tractor for the obligatory photo op. Along with consuming my share of kettle corn and funnel cakes, I got a healthy dose of nostalgia with my fair experience.

I grew up in a small farming town in Pennsylvania, so I went with my family to at least three fairs every summer. It was a tradition that marked the end of summer vacation. Since we were townies, we had no animals to show.

My mom made spectacular jams and jellies, but she never entered anything. No, we went as outsiders. It may seem strange, but it was kind of a literary experience for us, something out of our tattered copy of  “Charlotte’s Web.” We reenacted the same story — the same family story — each time we went.  And of course, that story revolved around food.

My sister and I each got to choose a treat. I usually went straight for the cotton candy, in various unnatural shades.

The taffy man always caught my sister’s eye. He would throw a huge rope of hot, sugary taffy onto a hook halfway across his booth, and pull the rope until it thinned to the width of a child’s arm. Then he would take up the thickness in the air, reunite it with its other half, and toss it again and again, weaving in a ribbon of color and flavor as he went. At last, as it cooled before our eyes and the flavor of the taffy streamed into our nostrils, he took out huge, wide metal shears and snipped the bulk into individual pieces, stacking them like cordwood onto waxed paper. While my cotton candy disappeared within minutes, dissolving in my mouth like sweetened air, my sister had the discipline to savor her taffy over a matter of weeks. 

Each fair had its own food specialty. We went to the Crawford County Fair for the barbecued chicken, advertised by the looming presence of a giant plastic rooster just outside the tent. And, at Albion Fair, we sought out the Methodist Women’s booth for the homemade pies. I generally chose lemon meringue. Dad, I believe, favored cherry. We were not Methodists, but my father, raised by a kindly Methodist family during WWII, has always had a soft spot for their hymns — and their desserts.

As for last week’s Del Norte County Fair, I spent it in a whirl of nostalgia while my son petted lambs and lowed with cattle. In one of the barns, I had a nice chat with a little boy who had raised a pig. He was especially fond of it, and as he talked to me, he lay down next to it, stroking its snout and kissing its cheek — if that indeed is what that part on a pig is called. I asked him if he would be sorry to sell it in a few days, and when he said “yes,” I could tell he was trying to be brave.

Fairs are about letting go as much as they are about coming together.

I had a fleeting thought of bidding on it — the pig, that is — and keeping it in my back yard. It was a fine pig.  But my practical nature overtook my literary pretensions. We walked on to the midway and left the boy to his good-byes.