limaohio.com

Bart Mills: Getting old but still loving the fair

August 23, 2012

There are events so loud and bright and full of cacophonic adventure they seem as though they were crafted by excitable children for their own amusement. There are others that offer so much of the sort of trapped-in-time nostalgia you suspect they were drawn from your grandmotherís dreams.



And then there is the county fair.



I am firmly on the record as being an aficionado of fairs, festivals and basically any event that can manage to bring together people, music, and the sort of food that shouldnít be deep-fried, but is. Given that definition, the county fair snakes its way to the top of that list, inching out the Minster Oktoberfest for first, despite a troubling absence of both beer and chicken dancing.



As a confessed homer, I am partial to the Allen County Fair. But I have room in my heart (and stomach) for all the regionís offerings and the good sense not to skip the opportunity to check them out whenever the opportunity arises.



I suppose the casual observer might assume my fondness for the fair is based solely on its culinary offerings. I will admit, I enjoy that part of it more than I (and my doctor) think I should. I joke about the deep-fried Twinkies and aorta-busting sausage options, but my true favorites are found in the farm group booths.



You may be able to get a ribeye sandwich any time of the year, but you can only get the perfect ribeye, served on a too-small bun and covered in diced onions and A-1 sauce, at the Cattlemenís booth located, without a wink of irony, right outside the cow barns. Likewise, a pork burger is simple enough to find outside of fair season, but itís only perfect when you eat it while sitting on a cement planter and gazing through the meandering crowd at those glorious beasts that will one day give their lives for similar concoctions.



But more than the glory of perfect pork and brilliant beef, beyond even the crystalline sweetness of the Luhginbulís engine-cranked ice cream (you have to head over by the new horse pavilion to find it, but it is well worth the stroll), my enthusiasm for the country fair is tied to its unique capacity to be darn near all things to all people.



I realize there are those who would argue that point. County fairs are, historically, events designed to please rural crowds. A suburban kid such as myself can certainly find common ground when it comes to the annual opportunity to pet a pig or check out a prize-winning quilt, but itís easy to see how some of that charm could be lost on urban kids generations away from anything resembling farm life.



The preponderance of country music, tractor pulls and other entertainment pretty squarely aimed at what can only be called White People Taste, adds to the divide. So I get it when my black friends scoff at the fair. I still think they would enjoy it if they gave it a chance ó a lemon shake-up is, after all, universal in its horrid glory ó but I understand why they donít.



That said, for a family like mine, working-class, white and just a generation from the family farm, the fair is one of the few traditions that crosses generational lines. As a child, itís a wonderland full of sights and smells and beasts you stumble across nowhere else in life. In the teen years, itís the place to see and be seen, a $3 ride on the Gergitator 500 where you can blame gravity for squeezing up against that hot girl from algebra class.



Then you are parents and itís a too rare opportunity to share something that feels wholesome and communal with your kids, a day of cues that prompt stories of your youth, and your fatherís, and his fatherís, on back. Finally, itís a place for old men and their aging brides to sit and watch all those younger folks do the things I just mentioned. Maybe they take in a gospel show or a bite at the local band tent. They see friends and the grandchildren of friends and if those kids are smart enough, they sit and listen to a few stories about how different, and how amazingly alike, the fair is today.



One the best quotations I ever scored as a reporter came from a 6-year-old boy attending the Allen County Fair. It was probably 15 years ago or more, and I was pestering people on the midway, asking why they liked the fair. His response was that it was a combination of the rides and the food and the animals and, more than anything, the fact that absolutely everyone seemed happy to be there.



ďItís like a birthday party, but with cows,Ē he said.



Fifteen years and a half-page of column space and I canít say it any better than that.