What They Ate at the Fair

san august fair

Years ago I traveled around the country for a book that required me to eat my way through county and state fairs, church suppers, fund raisers, ethnic festivals and countless community feasts. The plan was to follow in the footsteps of writers and photographers who worked for the Depression era’s Works Progress Administration program as they reported on what and how American food came about. Unsurprisingly, they found that our national cuisine developed over centuries of immigration, an important fact that is not being given enough credence these days. My time out on the road proved to be one of the most rewarding writing experiences I’ve had over my career and if I’m given another chunk of money again, I’ll light out in a second.

fried styrawberries
Reporting at the Illinois State Fair

I was enthralled everywhere I went but I was really taken to observe the intersection of politics and fairs. It was an off year for the presidential but a zinging one for state and federal senators and representative races. The country was restless for change after eight years that saw us dive into wars and the beginning of a precarious economy. Candidates popped up among ferries wheels and livestock tents, grabbing hands and stopping to be photographed even when not asked. Afterwards, they stood behind podiums and made their promises while weaving in the clear deficiencies in their opponents. For me, having grown up in big cities where such gatherings were not always well attended, the audience for almost all these speeches was rousing and engaged. Even the response to the lowest position (say country clerk) was truly astonishing, in a way heart warming. Whether being supportive or skeptical, the tenor of these gatherings generally maintained a level of civility we haven’t seen in awhile.

They were simpler times given that you could legitimately describe a political event as civil and heartwarming. But one thing remains true today–you can tell the character of politicians by what they choose to eat at a fair and the level of enthusiasm they have for it. To illustrate my point, I present Joe Dorman who at the time was an incumbent Oklahoma state senator running for re- election. I caught up with him at the Rush Spring Watermelon Festival where he participated in the seed spitting contest. The governor and his campaign manager, as well as the state insurance commissioner also made an appearance. The men (and they were all men) in their casual Friday attire, appeared to be good sports when they approached the contest line. They started out with a short oration underscoring their qualifications then got down to  business. None of them exceeded the watermelon queen’s distanced of 35 feet but the crowd, digging into chili bowls and their slices of salted watermelon, sent them each off with a lively round of applause.

Then came Dorman, lopping up on stage in a baggy T-shirt and even baggier cargo shorts hanging somewhat precariously from his thick hips.

“Go on Joe,” someone in the back laughed. Rush Springs was Joe’s district and possibly everyone knew him at least a little. He gave up  speechifying  and immediately tilted his head way back, propelling his first of three seeds clear across the stage.

“We got a runner!” one of the judges yelled causing the crowd to crane their necks to see just where the seed had landed in the grass–a good two feet off the stage.

The MC came over and slapped Dorman on the back before he finished his second and third rounds, all runners. Everyone hollered, a few cheered. He thanked them for their support and I think I saw him blush. His fellow candidates had long since beat a retreat but after congratulating the teenage boys whose seeds flew too far to be found,  he stayed around for a chili bowl and big chunk of watermelon under the food tent. (A short tutorial on seed spitting.)

I believe that anyone who so spiritedly risks looking ridiculous in front of voters is someone you want in your corner. Given the degree of decency and solidarity, Dorman displayed on the spitting field, I didn’t have to know him to develop confidence in him to do right and was not surprised to learn he retained his seat that November. He went on to push through bi-partisan bills supporting educational initiatives, increase in teachers pensions, and health care. He also pushed through house bill 1669 which made watermelons Oklahoma’s official vegetable.

( A ruckus was created in 2015 when Senator Nathan Dahm–R tried to kick watermelon out of its state vegetable status because he claimed it was a fruit and strawberries already had that role. He had a point, watermelon can be classified as both, but Oklahoma stuck with it as a vegetable and it continues its reign.)

iowa faur

All of which leads to the present ridiculously packed democratic presidential race, most of whom descended on the Iowa State Fair a couple of weeks ago. They caused quit a logger jam along the midway as they made their way toward the stage while sampling iconic food offerings. Warren and Sanders picked up corn dogs which can be eating while walking at the same time. Biden did the same after choosing ice cream, which is a little trickier in the midwestern heat. Meanwhile, Harris and Gillibrand lingered in the crowd long enough to flip burgers at the pork association’s tent but only Harris stayed to wolf down a pork steak. Attempting a shot at fair-goer comradery, Booker went with fried peanut butter and jelly on a stick and Buttigieg stuffed a deep fried Oreo in his mouth, followed by a wholesome chaser of cow-fresh chocolate milk. The “I’m really trying” candidates showed their mettle with bacon on a stick, turkey legs and fried cheese curds. Those who should think very hard on their life decisions drank beer and stopped walking to eat their corn dogs.

Trump was a no show at this year’s fair but he did win the corn kernel vote over his one Republican opponent, Bill Weld–97% to 3%. He did make a splash at the 2015 fair by arriving and leaving on a fancy helicopter. He didn’t stay to eat a thing.