The County Fair

:: as American as swine flu ::

The county fair is the heart of a Michigan summer. I guess you could make a case for awarding that title to bonfires, lake swimming, or chasing fireflies, but to me those are ancillary activities. Fair week is the big shebang. I probably formed this impression on my very first trip to Michigan, when Michael and I arrived and were immediately handed two passes and whisked away to a rodeo at the fair. It seems like everyone in town goes to the fair, and there are so many events and things to do for an entire giddy week. I asked our host what kinds of things we could expect to see and she handed me a thick booklet titled “Fair Premium Book.” It shone with a golden light and I’m pretty sure I heard an angel chorus crescendo as I opened it. In addition to listing all the events you can attend at the fair—like the Elvis impersonator, cow plop, tractor pull, and corn husking competition, it also detailed the multitude of categories in which you could enter arts and crafts for ribbons. I died with envy that I wasn’t able to enter anything.

fair - aerial
It’s a beautiful thing.

When we moved to Michigan 13 years later, getting my hands on the Fair Premium Book was at the top of my to-do list. For starters, I told Michael I wanted to enter the corn shucking competition and he said—tell me if you can believe this—“No way.” He knows me well enough not to tell me no unless it’s for my own protection. And I would like to say I’ve learned to heed his restrictions, but I rarely do.

“Why not?” I whined.

“Because Jessica, look around you. These people were born shucking corn. This is corn country. They’ll destroy you.”

I didn’t think that was a good reason not to try it, but I kept imagining myself hunched over a barrel obsessively trying to peel every last silk thread from a stubborn ear of corn while the young 4-H-ers around me shucked so fast their hands were a blur. In the end, I didn’t sign up for the corn shucking competition. I blame this not on my ability to be easily dissuaded, but on the humidity. How can the weather affect your decision-making abilities, you ask?

You sweet, silly person. You’ve obviously never been in Michigan in the hot, nasty summer. The air gets so heavy with water—warm water—that it settles suffocatingly on your body, weighing you down and making it feel like you’re slogging through a mud bog rather than just walking on the earth like a normal person. It’s hard to muster up the motivation to do anything other than melt into a puddle in this kind of weather.

So I set my sights on the craft categories. It can be confusing navigating the rules for entering stuff in the fair, and also trying to figure out why you did or did not get a ribbon for your entry. Mostly did not because if you did get a ribbon you would think, Well yeah, of course I got a ribbon. This thing I made is awesome. But when you work hard on something and bravely display it for the whole county to see and then you don’t get a ribbon at all, like you may as well not even have brought that messed up piece of garbage to the fair in the first place and nobody would have missed it, well that hurts. My daughter Eve has only experienced this once, and I don’t think she noticed. She gets blue or red ribbons on everything she enters like she’s some kind of Midas of the County Fair. My own blue ribbons are a tad less numerous, so I know well the sting of rejection. And it all started that first year.

fair - eve ribbons
Queen Midas of the County Fair

I’ve failed to win a ribbon in the categories of: drawing, knitting, photography, and jewelry making. But the most painful loss for me was the maple syrup. Our property is dotted with sugar maples, the best tree for making syrup. I conducted the extensive research of reading one skimpy blog post on the topic, and we were off and running making our own maple syrup. (If you want to try this for yourself, you can read more about the whole process here.)

I was ridiculously proud of our jar of golden syrup, and I presented it to the judges with pomp. The way it works at our fair is that you drop off your stuff, then come back the next day to see how you fared in the judging. When I came back the next day, I was giddy with anticipation. But I could see there was something wrong as I approached the maple syrup table. My jar didn’t have a blue ribbon on it, and this was a problem. It also didn’t have a red ribbon. Or a gold ribbon. I frowned at the white ribbon hanging limply on my syrup jar: 4th place. And guess why I got 4th? Because there were only four entries in the maple syrup category. I was dead last! If there had been one more entry, I might not have gotten a ribbon at all.

I was perplexed. Even though the judges have a sheet listing the evaluation criteria, you never get to see that. You don’t know what you’re being judged on and you don’t find out how you did, other than whether you got a ribbon or not. I didn’t want to talk to the judges about it but Michael pushed me toward them and encouraged me to ask them why I got fourth place. This felt like a bad idea to me. I mean, do you expect to hear anything good when you go around asking people, “Why do I suck?” and “Could you briefly explain, using small words, why everyone else is better than me?” I learned a long time ago not to ask those kinds of questions.

It turns out there is some stiff competition in the maple syrup category. I got the impression that the other entrants were professional syrup people, as were the judges. One of the judges told me that my syrup wasn’t as clear as the others, and that was the main reason I came in last.

“How many times did you filter this?” he asked me.

“Twice,” I replied, puffing out my chest a bit. I bet he was surprised I had put that extra work into a second filtration step.

“I always filter mine 12 times,” he said flatly. “Nine to 12, anyway, depending on what it’s for.”

Okay, good to know.

“And what kind of filter did you use? Wool, linen, orlon?” He rattled off the types and brand names of expensive, specialized filtration materials.

I looked at my feet as I answered, “Coffee filters.”

He snorted. “No ma’am, coffee filters ain’t gonna do it.” I was already humiliated, so I didn’t mention that the coffee filters were just my first step; the second step was done with an actual kitchen towel.

The next year we didn’t enter maple syrup, not because I was still pouting—as you may have guessed—but because we had an unusually mild winter and it was too warm for the trees to make good syrup. Instead, I entered a pint of honey from our beehives. Whereas the maple syrup category guidelines were detailed and specific to the point of making you put your syrup in a jar provided by the fair office itself so the entries would all be the same, the honey category was much more relaxed. It didn’t say anything about what kind of jar to use, so I called the fair office to ask. “Hmm, that’s a good question. No one’s ever entered honey before so I don’t really know. Just use your best guess.”

No one had ever entered honey? Are you thinking what I was thinking? GUARANTEED BLUE RIBBON! I was sure to walk away with first place this time. I walked into the exhibit hall with the honey held high over my head, shouting, “Stand back and behold my wondrous jar of blue ribbon honey, plebians!” Not out loud of course; that would be rude. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I walked up to the honey table the next day and saw a fricking red ribbon on my jar: 2nd place. What the hell! I was supposed to have the only entry. I guess someone got wind of my impending blue-ribbondom and wanted some of the glory for himself. No matter. Next year I will enter comb honey so beautiful no one will be able to beat it. Wait, I shouldn’t have said my plans out loud. Pretend you didn’t hear that.

My second summer in Michigan, I was working for the local newspaper and my editor sent me out to cover some of the activities going down at the fair. Imagine my unbearable smugness as I strolled into the fair not just as an exhibitor this time, not just as the parent of a blue ribbon winner, but as a reporter . . . decked out in my heather gray “Independent Newsgroup” t-shirt and a 12-pound digital SLR slung around my sweaty neck. My glory was short-lived, however, and I soon discovered why no one else at the paper volunteered to cover these stories. It hit me that I may not have been “star writer” so much as “low writer on the totem pole.”

fair - waiting
I’m so tired of waiting for this cow to poop already.

Sitting down with the fair schedule book and a highlighter, I quickly realized that the activities I was supposed to cover spanned the length and breadth of fair week. So I would be at the fair every day that week, and for many hours each day. Just on the first day, for example, I had to be at Face Painting in Clown Alley at 10 am, the Little People’s Pig and Lamb Show at noon, and the Cow Plop at 3 pm. As riveting and newsworthy as the Seniors Luncheon (With Bingo!) was sure to be, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been thrown into some kind of new reporter purgatory.

Eve and I headed to the fair armed with a couple bottles of water and a bag of trail mix, but our provisions ran out before face painting even started and what were we supposed to eat for the rest of the day? You might think that getting looped on a day’s worth of corn dogs and elephant ears would be fun but, unless you are under five years old, I assure you it is not. After apple cider slushies, a plate of butterfly chips, hot dogs, and nachos, I was so sick I could barf.

By the way, I use the term “nachos” loosely—let’s not get me started on what passes for nachos in rural Michigan. Coming from a state that knows how to make proper Mexican food, I can’t even with these midwestern nachos. Anyway, all the grease and sugar from our fair food diet was solidifying in our bodies and turning us into cranky old hags. On top of that, it was so dang hot and nasty outside, and crisscrossing the dusty fairgrounds all day made us super thirsty. So we had to shell out $5 each time we needed a drink, which in itself was either sugary or super tart, making us thirstier than before we got the drink in the first place. Why can’t you just get a cup of ice water around this place? I felt like that orphan in the movie Nacho Libre: “Can’t we ever have just like a salad or something?”

I have to pause here for a side conversation about hygiene and food preparation. I have never in my life had food poisoning so many times as I have since moving to Michigan. I swear any time I eat something not cooked (like lettuce) I end up locked in the bathroom for two days with norovirus. It’s happened to me four times in the past two years. That’s too many times! Anyway, I suspect it’s because people do not wash their hands enough.

Case in point: at the fair one day we got some fries from this nice lady in a food booth. She was friendly and upbeat, and in the five minutes we were standing outside her window waiting for our food, she developed some inside joke with Eve about time travel and bad hair days. I don’t know, I was only half paying attention. The most important thing was that she wore gloves when preparing the food. This was good. So later that evening when we needed to eat something for dinner, I thought we could go back to that booth with the nice, begloved lady and give the walking taco a try.

Unfortunately, I think we had caught her at a bad time. She wasn’t taking any of the food safety precautions she had earlier. She wasn’t even wearing gloves this time. She seemed like she had run out of cigarettes or maybe her last vicodin was wearing off, because her mood was decidedly sour. It was the mood of someone who might be thinking, “Well, crap. I guess this is my life then. I’m serving meat in Doritos bags, I’m out of smokes—and oh great—here come these two sweaty yahoos again.” That’s what I might be thinking, anyway. Except I don’t smoke. But if I worked in a food booth at the fair, I think I might take it up just to round out the look.

By the way, I’m not making fun of people who work in food booths at the fair. A job is a job, and I’m sure there are a lot of perks to working at the fair. Like maybe you’re on a first-name basis with the guy who carves wood sculptures with a chainsaw and he gives you his leftover wood pieces for free. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks free wood would be awesome, right? Anyway, I’m just saying food booth workers don’t all have to be unwashed, sullen grouches who act like they’d rather be anywhere else.

For example, there is one food booth at the fair that sells a drink called the Lemon Zinger, and a family works in there, a dad and a mom and a kid. And they seem happy to be there, like maybe the dad invented the Lemon Zinger himself one night after a long day of mowing the lawn, when he needed a refreshing drink that also replaced his sugar stores. And he brought it in to the family to try it, waiting hopefully for their reactions, and the son was like “You nailed it, pop! This is delicious!” and the mom was like, “You’ve really outdone yourself, dear. But I wonder . . . what if you add bits of lemon rind?” And the dad’s eyes lit up and he lifted his wife off the ground and swung her around and the son wrapped himself around their legs for an awkward family hug and all was right with the world in the Lemon Zinger household. When you order a Lemon Zinger at their booth, the dad yells out to the son “Order up! Zingeroo!” and he throws two fresh lemons plucked from a hanging basket to the son, who proceeds to juggle them briefly before tossing them in the blender and getting the cups ready. Then the mom takes your $10 and delivers a wink and a “Thank you, darlin’. You enjoy your day now.” Those people are really embracing their lot in life as food carnies. That’s the way to do it.

So back to this lady who, earlier in the day, was friendly and wore gloves and was interested in discussing time travel and now is depressed and scratching herself constantly and is definitely not wearing gloves of any kind. I didn’t want to order anything from her now that I had seen her state of mind, but I was already up at the window and I didn’t want to make her mad. Plus, what other options did I have? Most fair food is gluten, so Eve and I can’t eat it. I’d already spent a week’s pay on Lemon Zingers so I wasn’t going back there. And I didn’t think I could handle any more cotton candy at that point in time; I needed some protein, for the love of Pete. So I dove in headlong and ordered a walking taco.

Sidebar, in case you’re not from the midwest: a walking taco where I come from is a delicious seven-layer dip in a casserole dish that you scoop up with tortilla chips and eat on a plate while you’re mingling politely at a party. In midwestern fair context, however, a walking taco is a personal-size bag of Doritos into which a food carnie scoops some drippy taco meat, a handful of anemic shredded iceberg lettuce, and a plop of sour cream that may or may not have been properly refrigerated. Then the whole thing is sprinkled with grated cheese and garnished with a spoon.

Now here’s the key to a good walking taco: the scooping should be done with a spoon. Earlier in the day, our food carnie may have been hip to the spoon rule, but this late in the day she appeared to have forgotten about that important step as she reached into the tin of hot taco meat with her bare hand. After that, she attacked the lettuce and cheese with the other bare hand. Then she remembered that sour cream was supposed to make an appearance in this dish, at which point she found a spoon and flung a dollop into the bag. That very spoon then went into the bag. As in, that would be my spoon for eating this mess of violated foodstuff.

This was the state of affairs as we dragged ourselves around the fair for hours and hours, getting sweaty and sticky and dehydrated and broke from all the Lemon Zingers we purchased to keep ourselves alive. It must have been 90 degrees and the usual 100% humidity, which makes the air supremely heavy and unbreathable. We were covered in dust, filled with greasy food, and uncomfortably close to death. And this was just Day One. We still had four days of fair news coverage to go.

Two hours before the final activity of the day, we broke down. We gave up trying to entertain ourselves and make productive use of our time and simply crashed on the grime-coated bleachers in the big arena, deciding it would be better to sit there breathing in animal pen dust for a couple hours and wait for this damn cow plop than to continue wandering and getting more and more dehydrated and heat strokey. This was the year swine flu broke out, so at the beginning of the first day I had been extra vigilant about keeping my daughter away from pig dust (which is hard to do at the fair because man, that’s a place with a lot of pigs). But this late in the game, I was like, “You know what? A little swine flu won’t kill you. It’s good for your immune system, I’m guessing. If not, I’ll buy you some kind of exotic pet to make up for the respiratory treatments you’ll have to endure as you live out the remainder of your days in a plastic bubble.”

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I don’t really know what happens when you get swine flu.

fair - hamlet
Hamlet loves the ferris wheel.

Despite the heat, the sweat, and the ubiquitous pig dust, I sincerely can’t wait for fair week to roll around again this summer. As a family, we’re signed up to enter 30 items including drawings, photos, maple syrup, an avocado plant, a cardboard automaton, poetry, knitted socks, and some handmade greeting cards. I’m especially excited to watch the live pigeon release and ride the horse-drawn surrey when I get too tired to walk back to the exhibits barn. And I’m also super amped for our newest family tradition: singing along at the top of our lungs with the Beatles tribute band that closes out fair week.

I was going to spend the rest of tonight brushing up on the lyrics to Yellow Submarine, but I really should clear some space on the mantel for 30 new ribbons.

fair - writing entries

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