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.

I Am a Racist


ImageHere I am now with Miss Yvonne. She has a perfect oval face with a fuzz of hair across an elegant brown-skin skull.  Her eyes are her best feature, kohl rimmed and always mischievously alive.  When I see her in the hallway with her yellow cart full of mops and brooms, I stop and embrace her.  Her head tucks comfortably under my chin as we squeeze one another tight.  I ask right away how she is: she is well over seventy and has her aches.  On top of that, she has lived through bad times, especially an abusive husband she ran away from on the island where she grew up. We don’t talk about trouble though. Or pain—that’s what Aleve is for, she says.  Besides, now she lives with a family who treats her like a queen.  She has a job she likes with people who love her.  We laugh instead about handsome men and the food we cook. We hoot in hysterics over our ridiculous bosses.  It is well past the time I should be at my desk when I begin to walk away from her.  When I do, Miss Yvonne kisses the air.  

“I love you, darling.”

“I love you, too,” I reply. We both walk away from one another filling the hallway with loud and merry sass.  

One morning, I come into my office and ask a co-worker if we call Miss Yvonne “Miss” because that is how Pee Wee Herman addressed his girlfriend on the old Pee Wee Herman show. 

“In the African-American community, we address our elders as Mister and Miss as a sign of respect.  We care for our elders and, after all they went through, they deserve to be revered.”

His voice is hard and his explanation goes on for many more seconds than I can stand.  I can’t begin to explain why I said what I did. The Pee Wee thing just popped up in my head, as many absurd things are apt to do through the course of my day.  No way is Miss Yvonne Miss Yvonne except that she is loving and keeps us all together. That I would be so cavalier about my Miss Yvonne horrifies me. When I look into my co-worker’s eyes I see what he is thinking: I am an ignorant white person: I’ll never understand. When he finishes saying all he wants to say he turns back to his computer. I sit down at my desk.  Miles and miles separate us.

I am a racist. 

Here is a story from when I was twelve: I was home alone one Friday night. My dad went to pick up my mom after work. I don’t remember where my sister and brother were.

The phone rang.  I picked it up. “You tell your nigger-loving dad I know where he is and I know you’re alone now.  You tell him that.”

Our house was three stories tall with a stone basement full of shadows. I was sitting on my parents’ bed surrounded by empty rooms. All the windows and doors were open to catch the early spring breeze.  I scrammed down the steps, bolted out the door and ran for two blocks to my friend’s house. Her mother sat me at the kitchen table and got the story out of me through my clenched fear.

It was the year my dad, a community organizer in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia, was helping an African-American couple buy a house in an all white sub-division.  African-Americans had lived in our neighborhood for almost two centuries. They had worked alongside all the other ethnic groups that eventually arrived to work in the old mills along the river.  Everyone joined my dad to find ways to stop the neighborhood from crumpling after the mills closed.  If the young couple wanted to move to the next neighborhood where they found a house with a yard for their children, why would anyone stop them?  Civil rights was new back then and no one was naïve but still, we were cosseted by a neighborhood full of immigrants who shared hard times.  How could such a common desire deserved threats?

The man’s words didn’t make any sense to me.  I overheard my parents’ anger and a police car stayed in front of our house for weeks but still the words remained unexplained. People in the neighborhood heard about what happened and knew a line had been crossed. Suspicion took up residence in places it had never been. Sides—which one were you on—materialized.

I am not twelve anymore. I understand words and meanings, how anything at all can be put in a way that hurt and frighten.  Some months past before my co-worker and I established some balance.  What remains though is a new wariness from him and new shame for me.  We share career ambitions, economic stability, political beliefs and tastes in books.  None of this forgives my senseless remark or cools the moral anger that runs just beneath the surface of our relationship. I crossed a line; suspicion has taken up residence between us. We both consider I may be the worst possible racist, the kind that think she’s not, but will never understand how menacing even the simplest action may be.

This makes Miss Yvonne more of a blessed salve each day.  When she and I meet in the hallway, it feels as if we are just two women trying to get through our days with laughter and embraces.  She accepts me as I am and I consider her a queen as much as her adopted family does. For a little while, the only line we cross is the cheerful impertinence of women with an eye for men and irreverence for their superiors.

“Hello my darling,” Miss Yvonne says today. “How are you?”

“I’m okay, Miss Yvonne.”

“I don’t know what I would do without the people I love.”

“Me neither,” I agree.

America Eats! Our Reason to Feast!

legionaire fish fry

(Legionnaire picnic, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937)

A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called America Eats! On the Road With the WPA: The Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food (Bloomsbury Press).  I know. That’s a mouth full but it describes the contents pretty accurately.  It was about a project the writers in the WPA’s Federal Writers Administrations worked on in the late 1930s that tried to explain what exactly was American food.  To do this, the writers trooped to all kinds of community meals—church suppers, political barbecues, county fairs, family reunions to name a few. Holiday gatherings, of course, were covered and it is surprising how different these celebrations were across the country, different in style and the dishes that were served.  The photos here were taken at the same time by photographers in a similar federal program. Together the programs started the careers of some of our best artists.

cakes and pies color

(Dessert at a town dinner, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1939)

What I did was travel around the country to the same places the writers did.  I wanted to see how much had changed or if things had stayed the same.  It took me a little more than a year and a lot of eating—giving new meaning to packing it on. What I discovered was that the pies and stews; the pigs turned on spits or smoked in pits; the chickens simmered with vegetables and served with biscuits; and all the cakes and cookies and sweet tea, lemonade and beer that is served from Maine to New Mexico was a lot like back then.

The one thing we don’t do as much is gather together as a community.  I’m pretty much a loner but even I found this a shame.  Because the truth of the matter is, American cooking was forged from the necessity to support each other while we tried to establish a home in a vast and lonely country.

barbecue men

(Barbecuing, Greene County, George, 1939)

So today, if you draw together around a table with family, friends and neighbors, know you are upholding a tradition that has made us whole.  The country goes through hard times, as it did when America Eats! was first being composed.  Sometimes we feel everything is going to rack and ruin, but somehow we eventually right ourselves.  What remains steady is our food that is as complex in its lineage and its ability to unite us all.

Happy Fourth, everyone! Pile on the plates!


(This is me with 2 Illinois farmers at the best restaurant on Rt 36)


My Break Ups


In the last seven years, I have lost five friends. They are very much alive but they don’t want to see me.

The trouble is they remain a vivid part of me.  I cannot not  think of them. That is how much they once meant to me. The first to depart I knew for about fifteen years. The next was newer—three years. Followed was a great one: a niece I considered a daughter—thirty-two years. And then there was the great divide, a two, three, year relationship that factored in the departure of one through four.

Number five was the capper.  Let’s call her Grace, for that was what she was from 2000 to 2012. There wasn’t anything we didn’t discuss or go through together, starting with marital discord, serious illnesses, children and siblings, our lost youth, even decorating disasters. One ordinary day at lunch she said I crossed a line about something we had crossed many times before.  Just like that, the day became historic.

One way or another, these break-ups were caused by my breakdown.  Beginning in 2005, I could no longer catch my breath. I had no conscious idea what I was doing, except for the whirl it created around me. Eventually, I  became paralyzed, unable to focus, to move, wishing only a very swift and merciful release.  The thing about my breakdown was that, as these things go, it was a quiet affair.  A repressed Irish heritage is good for something.  None of my friends and family guessed the nature of my increasing strangeness.  The first two friends and my niece considered my erratic stumbling in the worse possible way.  It was easier for them to walk away from me than to sort through my trail of debris.  Swept up in the vortex of my break-down, the fourth blindly went along with its initial ecstatic nature and backed out much too later.

Grace was different.  She heard the cracks my shell was making and sympathized because she had done the same.  She gave me a secure space to rest.  She made me laugh hysterical about our mutual oddness. “It’s hard being us,” we said all the time and that would be enough to acknowledge the pain as well as the necessary acceptance to begin gluing myself together again.

When we broke up, Grace was changing many things in her life. I think I reminded her too much of what she needed to move past. For weeks after that lunch, I tried in increasing despair to talk to her. When she finally called me back to say she could no longer be my friend, she was actually kind about it, or as kind as one can be when breaking another’s heart.  A measure of how good she had been for me and her effectiveness in teaching me how to accept my shattered self, was that my mourning for her has given me this understanding of her own needs.

But good Lord do I miss her.  How I miss the others, too.  Even when I was spitting angry at their departure, I longed for them. I’m pass that now and I often consider texting them, reaching out to their Facebook/LinkenIn sites. I examine Instantgram where I see them with their current friends, lovers and family. A few have blogs. I mull over just slipping them an innocent “Hello! How are you? ;)”

I catch myself just in time because I realize that to them I am probably just a dim memory troubling the edges of their consciences. I appreciate that and remain gone.  I make do with knowing their presence in my life changed me as much as my breakdown did by giving me a deeper respect for resilience and forgiveness.

New Read

There’s a great new site to find interesting stories. It’s called Medium and I just posted a short essay that came about from Paula Deen.  It mulls over the character of southern food and how its most distinctive recipes were  pulled from the spines of slaves. It is important to recognize that our food heritage was forged by Indians, Chicano, Chinese, people whose early culinary influence are embedded deep in our culture.  Much like the southern heritage Ms. Deen’s enormous success is built upon, their input is re-appropriated for our day’s fashions.

Here’s the link: https://medium.com/@PAwillard  I hope you enjoy it and while you’re there wander around the great writing on almost any topic you can think of.

Divorce Lawyer in Aisle 6


The only reason I began to shop at Fairway was because my best friend dragged me.  She went there every Saturday afternoon and I would tag along just to be with her. Saturday afternoon at Fairway is the sixth ring of hell. The aisles fill with the kind of people I hate, their only crimes ranging from a habit of contemplating the beauty of organic vegetables for way too long, to drawing the cheese guy into a lengthy discussion of rare Pyrenees goat cheeses.  That, and they often grab my cart instead of their own, which means I have to go back and start all over again.

I get particularly incensed by the hordes of couples, especially those who are accompanied by an absolutely adorable and brilliant child or two. The sons I gave birth to never subjected me to this actual bit from a three year old:  “Mummy! Mummy! What rhymes with orange?  Nothing, mummy!” Nothing, mummy!”  As for my husband he considers shopping a chore and he would think I had lost it if I asked him which of four brands of shortbread cookies we should buy.  He doesn’t understand the desire for heritage chickens or the preference of French lemonade over Coke.  If he went with me, I’m pretty sure we’d drive directly to a bar.  And he doesn’t even drink.

My friend used to say that by the time I got to the checkout counter, I was like a rabid dog, snapping and snarling.  She said I scared her and laughed at my unreasonable irritation. Back home, my husband would point out that I  spent $150 over our grocery budget because, just like the people who make me snarl, I have fallen for the need of Pyrenees goat cheese and freshly baked shortbread.  I feel guilty and mean spirit.  I tell him I have to go lie down and he says something like “maybe you shouldn’t go there anymore.”

I am no longer friends with my best friend—that’s a story in itself.  But I still go to Fairway and I still snarl.  Recently, my husband said he would consider going with me: he was curious to see what this hellhole was like and why I continue to go now that friendship doesn’t come into play.  I thought about it for a second. We have been married for a long time and he has seen me at my pathetic worse.  But Fairway? Among all the other couples? We wouldn’t make it anywhere near the checkout counter.

Body Conscious


I met a friend for lunch in the Village.  She was standing outside, tall and elegant in a narrow black skirt and lacy top, silver hair swept back from her face. She is close to 5’10.  I was wearing a canvas green trench coat (it had just gone from 65 to 80 degrees in the span of 20 minutes), black crinkled linen pants and the only shirt I could find that was clean–a red wife-beater undershirt.  My brown/blond/silver hair was shooting out of its coil at my neck.

We lunched at a back table in a pub, the only women in the place, which didn’t bother us at all except for when I used the men’s room instead of the women’s room and then the man in the next table was a tiny bit shocked when I reported how the only way I could tell was its grubby scent and raised seat.

After leaving her I wandered over to the subway and got on a train to Soho.  I got a seat but the car quickly filled up.  Before me stood a man, tan pants, plaid shirt, nice brown belt.  I began to read but looking up again I noticed something at eye level: his penis.  At first I didn’t think it was but then it had to be, a cylindrical shape rimmed by a little bulb at top, half way up the zipper,  and pointed leftward like a compass needle.  At this point, I wanted to see his face: a pleasant enough middle-aged face, slightly nerdy, not much to write home about. A very worn canvas backpack pulled his baggy shirt taunt across his sloping shoulders.  Eyes back to the penis where I began to think that it must be like a woman’s breast, something that needed to be harness against its innate desire to be unruly. The larger it is–say more than a D cup or 6 inches–and the public’s perception somehow comes into  considerable account, the need to protect what is so essential  from untoward notice,  securing it, tucking it in, making sure that it is invisible and unavailable. By the time I arrived at my stop  in Soho, I was finding myself protective of subway penis.  It had endeared itself to me,   not by any means arousing but making me happy to have been briefly in its presences.

And then I roses up into the streets of Soho where it’s a rule that only the tourists possess physical defects. A huge amount of perfection crowded around me.  Peeling my coat off revealed a sweat soaked red undershirt, a little bit of olive oil from my lunch dabbed above a small left breast, the black bra beneath on display for all to see. Hair was now an unraveling Brillo pad spilling down my back. Forget makeup, lipstick, even a straight back.

I stood at the corner waiting for the light to change, conscious of my exposed body among all these others in the city.  I was neither perfect or a tourist; possessing of few attributes that were stand-outs.  It did not matter.  My elegant friend, my endowed subway companion, the imperfect tourists among the perfect natives–all our bodies were joined in moving together on a suddenly warm summer day in the city.