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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fun At The Fair

Years and years ago I went to the Illinois State Fair with Bill and his family. It was a sort of de facto Nelson/Lockwood Family Reunion since many of Sallie's relatives lived in Springfield and many more came to town for the fair.

We stayed at the home of Sallie's Aunt Katherine & Uncle Harv (Harvard, not Harvey). This was the uncle who owned a vintage 1970s red El Dorado (could it have been a convertible?) and who arrived in Chicago every fall with a trunk full of fruit from his trees. He did not really have an orchard but they did live on a lake on a large parcel of land on which were planted several fruit trees - apple, peach, pear, plum - and each autumn he loaded up the trunk of the Cadillac with fruit (I mean loaded) to bring to friends and relatives.

Uncle Harv also had a large garden to which he rode a bicycle and where he harvested endless butternut squash. Probably there were other vegetables but I only remember seeing rows and rows of squash. He brought several back and Uncle Tom at once cut one up and cooked it with butter, salt and pepper, proclaiming it delicious.

Also staying in the house were other relatives. The camper trailer was set up in the side yard and Sara's family stayed there, while others stayed at the Holiday Inn in town. Believe it or not on the day we went over to enjoy the hotel pool, there was a beauty pageant in progress in the rather huge atrium/auditorium. Probably the Miss Teen Springfield pageant and likely in conjunction with the fair doings. We did go to the fair and I did enjoy it although we did not partake of the rides or the stage shows.

I had only been to the fair once before, the Michigan State Fair, and as a 12-year-old I thought the only reason to go to a fair or carnival was to ride a Ferris wheel, eat carnival food and buy souvenirs. As an adult, I learned that looking at prize cows, sheep and poultry and watching pigs race for a pan of Oreos was equally entertaining.

The most fun (to me) was viewing the prize winning canned goods - fruits, jams, jellies, preserves - and cakes and pies. Even floral arrangements were awarded blue ribbons. Although most of the fair was winding down (the animals were being removed even as we watched) the cook-off was yet to be decided. This year, it was a beef contest and I had the dubious honor of watching some of the finalists prepare their entries.

The kitchen contained four cooking stations, each equipped with its own range, sink and counter top. Contestants had brought their ingredients and cookware in bags or boxes. A few of them gave me icy stares when I approached their work stations but one seemed willing and even eager for observers and chatted them up. I watched her prepare her prize winning "Mexican Lasagna" (I might have called it tamale pie or enchilada casserole but what do I know). In a 9x13 glass baking dish she layered her sauce, refried beans, corn tortillas, her secret recipe ground beef and her shredded cheese.

I marvelled that she used pre-packaged versions of everything, including pre-shredded cheese. Thrift conscious, I would have opted to shred my own and save a few pennies. Most wondrous of all were her tortillas. I had never seen any like them for sale. They were small - much smaller than the corn tortillas generally available for sale. Those were about six inches in diameter. Here were only four or five inches and they intrigued me. Anything different than we are used to seems inherently more interesting and desirable. (I saw some of these small tortillas for sale in a Chicago Groceria y Carniceria just last week).

She noted my interest and held up her package of tortillas, which were sold six to the pack . The tortillas I routinely purchased were packed no less than a dozen and often 20 or more to a pack. "This is a new kind of Mexican Lasagna noodle" she informed me, in her down-state drawl. "They're called tor-tellas". I nodded and attempted to appear rapt. I knew what they were, having eaten tortillas, tostadas, tamales and tacos nearly all my life, and having made authentic homemade tortillas on more than one occasion.

She finished her ministrations and slid her concoction into the oven to bake. I wandered over to the other stations, hoping to engage the other contestants in similarly scintillating conversation, but they were having none of it. I did not take their aloofness personally and instead wandered about viewing partially eaten pastries and wondering about the criteria for judging.

I have been to a few smaller fairs since, namely the county fair held in Barraboo, WI with Mary on a sisters' weekend, but have never returned to a State Fair. I would love to attend the Iowa State Fair which is often touted as one of the best. I even sent away for the judging guidebook for everything one might enter in the Illinois State Fair. Maybe one year my marmalade will be on display. Maybe I'll win the bake-off! Maybe, but probably not.

Quotable Quotes; in the category Let's Put The 'Fun' Back In Dysfunctional!

"If you ever start feeling like you have the goofiest, craziest, most dysfunctional family in the world, all you have to do is go to a state fair. Because five minutes at the fair, you'll be going, 'you know, we're alright. We are dang near royalty."

Jeff Foxworthy

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