All over New England, farmers spend months preparing their soil, cultivating specially bred seeds and gently tending their crop with high-tech lamps while protecting it from the ravages from the sun. They do this so they can, at the end of their labors, deliver the perfect giant pumpkin to their county fair, at which time my kids can declare, probably in unison, “Ew! That’s gross!”
And of course they’re right, because it is gross: It looks like something the dog might have heaved up onto the rug, if the dog was the size of Cleveland. But we’ll go see it anyway, because it’s fall in New England, and it’s the law. Sort of like how everyone in Minnesota has to visit the giant ball of twine.
Because as anyone knows who’s been to an agricultural fair like Springfield’s Big E or the Topsfield Fair, these gatherings evoke our nation’s rich agricultural heritage, assuming that heritage included citizen farmers who got up early each morning to tend to vast, rolling fields of Italian sausages and fried dough. How they got through the great powdered sugar drought of ’06 is still beyond me.
In reality, these events are an exercise in contrasts. For instance, my wife and I like to go to see the livestock, because we find the cows relaxing — they sort of make you want to curl up next to them, like they’re giant Labrador retrievers with udders. (Memo to scientists: Don’t get any ideas.)
Suggest that prospect to my kids, though, and they’re incredulous — why would anyone visit one of the nation’s oldest agricultural and livestock fairs to see agriculture and livestock, when you can be riding the “Crazy Bus”? Yes, it’s the same Crazy Bus that we rode in our town carnival last month, run by the same carnie who takes all his personal hygiene and wardrobe cues from old Hollywood movies featuring carnies. But there’s one key difference: At the fair, the wait’s longer. Plus, while you’re waiting, you can spend $8 to have your face painted like a Power Ranger.
But you can’t say these fairs aren’t adept at merging the agricultural with the, well, non-agricultural. Things like the racing pigs — somehow I doubt America’s hog farms are full of farmers setting up pigs at a starting line. (“OK, if you lose, we eat you. If you win, we eat you too. You’re all getting eaten. Get ready, get set …”)
There’s also a trailer with bears in it — I’m not aware of many ranchers out there raising herds of bear, although there is probably a hefty government subsidy available for anybody willing to try it. I’ve never actually been in the bear trailer, probably because my mother always told me: Don’t go into a trailer full of bears.
And yet despite these issues — the crazy exhibits, the greasy food, the fact that you have to park in what I’m convinced are ancient Indian burial grounds — at the end of the day these fairs are really a microcosm of America: They’re good but gaudy, large but deformed, cute and cuddly but if you get too close they may bite your finger off.
Or I suppose they could just offer a chance to get the family out of the house to an event where every single member is bound to find something to enjoy. Personally, I plan to keep that in mind this year when I’m on the Crazy Bus — I think if I really crane my neck from up there, I can see the cows.
This column appeared originally in West of Boston Life magazine. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/pchianca. To receive At Large by e-mail, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”