Food Essay

America’s Got Talent: Fair Food

I live so close to the county fairgrounds that I’m listening to the horse race announcer as I write this. One block closer, and the fair committee would have sent us free tickets to assuage our neighborly outrage at having to listen to the horse races by day, the country rock noise by night, and the litter that the fair’s nighttime spotlights—which curiously look like a woman’s legs scissoring open and closed—splash across our sky each evening.

Sweet and salt and bitter and good.
Call the cardiologist!

I can smell the fair from here, too. The hot oil, the bacon grease—because deep-fried bacon is this year’s curiosity—the horrible cinnamon of those iced buns. This is the time of the year when folks rhapsodize about fair food. The local paper runs a small contest and brings the winners to the fair’s opening day armed with $20 bills to spend on every gross-out treat they can grab in one hour’s time. The resulting meal generally contains the de rigueur deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried pickles, and deep-fried Snickers bars; various artistic permutations of the deep-fried potato; the horror of hamburgers encased in Krispy Kreme donuts; and other gastronomic atrocities.

But when I talk about fair food, I’m referring to the food that folks bring to the fair. The food they make to be judged.

I’m not immune. When my sons were little, we entered their Lego creations to the fair, where they won blue ribbons. Not to be outdone, I baked my “famous” coffee cake, the sour cream one from the Silver Palate cookbook. Except on that long ago summer day, I was impatient and rushed and bored, so burned the poor thing before slapping it on a white paper plate where it oozed grease in an increasingly spreading sad brown ring for the fair’s two-week run, a third place ribbon (because everyone wins at the fair!) appended next to it.

Call me a veteran. I have empathy for the urge that causes women to enter little dark jars of homemade jam, quickly wooden cookies, and really strange cakes to a panel of strangers who will taste, sniff, and possibly reject their offerings all for a chance to snag that smallest of lovelies, the blue ribbon.

Yes, it's a rat on a cake.
Yep, that’s a rubber rat on a cake.

But what really draws me across a hall populated with hand-sewn quilts, homely homemade dresses, and tortured knitting projects are the table settings.

The table setting concept is that one devises a theme—the Fourth of July is horrendously popular—and sets a table for that thematic meal replete with an imaginary menu. The judges look to see if the knives are properly positioned (the blade should be turned to the left) and if the setting achieves a unique harmony of theme with food.

I love to see what kids think comprises an elegant meal. It’s usually something that the canine lovers in the 1969 version of 101 Dalmatians might choose, lips meeting over a single noodle. Spaghetti and red sauce with a wax-spoiled Chianti bottle are faves.

But this year, there were no minor offerings; the settings were solely by adults. Adults with whom I never wish to share a meal.

I do love the Blue Willow dishware.
I do love the Blue Willow dish ware.
That's slow-cooked beef for one of the year's hottest days.
But slow-cooked beef stew and grapes? Oh my!

In my experience, the Fourth of July is that day in which you eat chocolate cake in your bathing suit. Beer is king; chips, even better. It’s hot, it’s daytime, and slow-cooked beef stew is the last thing you can imagine. You might enjoy the “potatoe” salad and “water melon” listed on other thematic fourth of July tables, but stew, not so much.

But while I don’t want to eat this meal or, for that matter, sit at this table (I’m too messy for knit bears to be near me at dinnertime), I do enjoy the glimpse it offers into someone else’s life.

She—and let’s just accept that this is a woman—took on the table setting challenge, thought through a concept, devised a menu, hand wrote the details, and brought it all down to the fairgrounds. Perhaps her husband helped her. She made sure that the knife blade points to the left, she created a flower arrangement, she added little inky icons to her menu that only she understands, and she settled it all in the fairgrounds hall, assuredly standing back afterwards with a sense of satisfaction.

The more I think about it, the more it turns out that she’s my hero. And the more I think: Damnit, I’m going to submit a table setting to the fair next year. It won’t be Fourth of July-themed unless I can set a table with bikinis and beer bottles—but perhaps Beltane would do, something pagan and raw, nymphs chasing men through the woods. Goat should be on the menu, accompanied by slurry French cheese and asparagus.

Why not? I’m guaranteed to at least make third place.

This post first appeared on Food Riot, Aug. 5, 2013.

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