I love county fairs. They’re impressive, in the enormous amount of talent and hard work on display in the craft shows and animal barns. They’re also surprising, full of people showcasing hobbies that I’ve never heard of before—raising miniature donkeys, for example, or carving pumpkins with chainsaws. And of course: fried food, throwing darts at balloons, and, in Puyallup’s case, an old rollercoaster that my husband claims is held together primarily by paint. (That rollercoaster is a favorite of mine, because it seems legitimately terrifying in a way new computer-operated rides aren’t.)
The county fair of my childhood was in Amish country, down in the rolling farmland of southeastern Pennsylvania. As you might imagine, certain contest categories, like quilting, pickling and pies, were tremendously competitive. Even today, while struggling with modern sprawl, the area still has four separate (and gigantic) fairs in a six-week period. And even today, I brag about my second-place ribbon for the general class biscuit baking, awarded when I was seven. Not bad when you’re up against Mennonite grandmothers.
One of the main reasons I think fairs are important is because they’re so often a city kid’s first connection to agricultural life. Getting to pet a goat or hold a chicken is the sort of sensory experience that can stick with a preschooler. Talking to a freshman high school student who’s earning college money by raising pigs is a powerful introduction to the financial realities of a farm. Seeing the effort that goes into the gorgeous county grange agricultural displays is all-out inspiring.
Almost everyone hits up the Puyallup once a year—and it’s a lot of fun, especially that terrifying old rollercoaster. But if you live outside Pierce County, please don’t miss your own local fair. King County, down to just three percent agricultural land these days, nearly lost its fair this year thanks to budget cuts, it was reclaimed at the 11th hour, and its future may depend on this year’s good turnout. I’ll be there, and I’m challenging my friends to enter a contest or two. Believe me, even a second-place ribbon is a thrill.
For those of you who inquired about Icebox, rest assured it will return in our September/October issue.
Congratulations to our 2009 Local Hero award winner Maria Hines, who also claimed the 2009 James Beard Foundation award for Best Northwest Chef.