What I Learned at the State Fairs

fair winners

A couple of years ago my sister Sue and I drove from Indiana to Iowa to go to the great state fairs.  Every state has its own fairs and all of them are worth attending for a whole day.  But we picked these to travel to because they’re in the middle of the Midwest farm belt and they have a long history of showcasing  4-H clubs and animal husbandry.   In the home economic halls all the stitches are straight and all the cakes are high.  There are pies wherever you go, and every living soul, including the animals, are as spruce up and happy as can be.

beautiful pig

Sue and I get giddy over these things: two middle-aged women driving along Rt 33 from Indianapolis to Springfield and then on to Des Monies. We have in-depth discussions about the different chicken breeds we now know and how someone manages to carve a replica of the White House from Spam. She decides she needs to perfect her biscuit and gravy recipe, which is something she is seriously doing comparison testing across the three states (Illinois so far is the winner). I learn to milk a cow from a twelve-year-old.

milking cow

After I proposed this trip to Sue, I did a lot of research and found there was considerable badmouthing about the state of the state fairs.   Many grouse that they are no way near what they were in years past.  I will confess that there is an outrageous amount of food fried  that shouldn’t be fried.   The internet laments the dearth of  canning and preserves skills on display.  Some consider the fact that managing a pair of  Clydesdales pulling a plow has no meaning anymore.  Everything at the state fairs are just show and no substance. That’s what they say.

horses arean

Sue and I can do a lot of things.  She sews magnificently.  I’m not bad at growing things.  We’ve both been called hell of a cook.  But at the state fairs, we know we are outclassed and so we wander around the halls and the pens and the arenas marveling at all the bounty of the talents on display.   Everyone who has come to the fair to show off their handiwork have skills and knowledge we wish we have or even the time to acquire.  The week and a half we have somehow managed to extract from our lives evolves into an education on what is not in our everyday lives.  For instance, that when you rest your cheek against a cow as you milk her, you feel her warm breath becoming a part of you and the rhythm of the work is addictive lulling–probably much better for you than klonopin.  You are blown away by a seventy-nine year old Iowa woman’s blueberry barbecue sauce because while you watch her make it, she  talks about the fresh noodles she used to make every Sunday and reveals an easy method to pluck the chicken that goes with the noodles.  She ladles the sauce on top of beef to make sandwiches for the crowd and its subtle spiciness starches the meat with a smacking burnt sweetness.

barbecue sauce

The way she describes everything, you are ashamed you haven’t thought of blueberries or, for that matter,  any other extraordinary ingredient to put  in your barbecue sauce, or that noodles can certainly be made between the time you get up and the time you go to church, if you went to church anymore.  Which, while listening to the woman, you think maybe you should consider doing again if you’re going to try plucking a freshly killed chicken.

Every night after we walk through the fairs, Sue and I find a nice bar to sip an icy martini while we talk about the day’s events.  We mull over the fact that when we return to Philadelphia and Brooklyn where we live, we could probably take up one or two skills and maybe get good enough to enter our own state fairs.  It’d be fun and we’d be proud–late-blooming blue ribbon girls! I even know of a hipster DIY kind of center where I can learn canning, butchering, probably Spam carving, too.  Preserving and butchering are in vogue–not necessary every-day skills for the people I’ll be learning with–but still.

We pretty much talk ourselves into believing we will do this even as we return our rental car and get on the plane home.  But it’s not a surprise that we don’t.  We’re ashamed to say that since our trip we haven’t managed to take the time, which means we haven’t mustered the will.  But, you know, that’s what state fairs are great for.  Our week and a half on the road gives us a fine appreciation for a life we don’t lead.  It teaches us what is missing in our busy lives and gives us more reasons to try disengaging from  the enormous amount of trivia we get caught up in.

“Wasn’t it a privilege to go to the state fairs,” Sue will say to me from time to time.  And I reply that it’s time we go again.

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pat willard

Grew up in Philadelphia. Live in Brooklyn. Written four books best described as about memory and cultural history, food and some pretty good recipes. Works in progress may be viewed at www.patwillard.org

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