Magazine | October 1, 2018, Issue

State Fair

Hilby, the Skinny German Juggler, performing at the New York State Fair (courtesy New York State Fair)
One of America’s best traditions continues

Syracuse, N.Y.

Being a modern type, I catch an Uber from the airport. The driver says, “What brings you to Syracuse?” I tell him I’m going to the fairthe New York State Fair. He says, “Are you working at the fair or just attending?” A little of each, I tell him: I’m going to write about it.

The driver has had far more interesting passengers — including a guy he picked up last week, who said he had a job at the fair. “Oh? What do you do?” asked the driver. The passenger responded, “I dive from an 80-foot platform into an eight-foot pool.” He does, too. I will see it later: an extraordinary feat.

I think it’s extraordinary that state fairs are still going, in this age of screens, large and small, and whiz-bang entertainment. Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote their musical State Fair in 1945. It seemed old-fashioned, tinged with nostalgia, even then. Yet all 50 states have a state fair, and Washington, D.C., does too. Yes, D.C.

They have a pie contest in D.C., with several divisions. These include Best Apple, Best Fruit (Non-Apple), and Best Non-Fruit. They also have a vegetable contest, in which you can compete for Longest, Heaviest, or Funkiest.

The state fairs are held in accordance with the weather. What I mean is, the New England states have their fairs in high summer. Southern states wait till October, when the weather cools off. Florida has its fair in February (its most heavenly month).

This year in Syracuse, the New York State Fair goes from August 22 to September 3 (Labor Day). In 2017, over a million people attended. Even more will attend this year. The fair grows and grows, even in our screen-crazy age.

New York’s state fair is the oldest one in the country. It began in 1841, right here in Syracuse. Among the activities was a plowing contest. For the next 50 years, the fair moved around to other cities in the state, including Poughkeepsie, Elmira — even New York City itself. In 1849, a proto–Ferris wheel was introduced to the world at the New York State Fair. Before long, the Civil War came, but the fair was held every year nonetheless. In 1890, the fair made Syracuse its permanent home.

They have every farm animal you can think of, and many animals you probably can’t think of. Cavies? Never heard of them. Conies, yes, from the Bible (they are bunnies, I gather). I look up “cavy” on my smartphone: “any of 14 species of South American rodents.”

I have been emailing with a friend of mine, Professor Barbara J. Fields, the historian of the American South. When it comes to state fairs, she is curious to know “whether enough urbanites attend to abate, to any degree, the prevailing ignorance about agriculture — which, as I love to remind my students, is the world’s oldest profession, whatever they may have been told.”

Well, I hear a young woman with a honking New York City accent say, “Do they have a baby cow every owa” (hour)? The fair indeed has a Live Birthing Center, located in the Family Fun Zone. Whether births are every hour, I’m not sure. Another city woman says laughingly to her daughter, who’s roaming among the cows, “Be careful — that one over there got action.” She means that this cow is producing what we will later call “manure.”

The farm kids who are here with their animals are, of course, total naturals. They must marvel at the other kids who marvel at their animals.

At 4 o’clock in the Poultry Building, I attend the Rooster Crowing Contest. It’s nothing to crow about, unfortunately: a bust. The roosters keep largely mum. One woman mutters about her entry, “He ain’t doin’ nothin’.” The judges are seated in the front row, with their pencils poised. They look forlorn, with nothing to judge. I feel a little embarrassed for all concerned.

You have old-timey things such as that contest, but also new-timey things such as the Ninja Experience: A team of martial-arts experts will dazzle you. You have a collection of antique tractors, but also . . . well, the latest tractors. Big suckers, too. Parents hoist kids into the cockpit.

There is an ample midway, with your usual rides. Carnies still look like carnies, interestingly enough, with teeth not guaranteed. Barkers still bark. One man runs a game of chance, and recites his lines robotically, as if he has done it for a hundred years. “Annnnd number 3’s the winner. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.”

The fair has a spanking-new expo center, a mammoth building, which the fair’s website tells me is 136,000 square feet. A man tells me something I can better relate to: “You could slide the Statue of Liberty in there, on its side.” On the outside of the building is our national motto: E pluribus unum, i.e., “Out of many, one.” I am very pleased to see that. As I am the New York State motto inside the building: Excelsior, or, “Ever upward.”

Sitting in the middle of the building is a large ice rink, on which young figure skaters are now performing their routines. Any future Olympians in the bunch? In a corner of the building are carved pumpkins, which have been assembled to depict a turkey. So you have Halloween and Thanksgiving in one.

The fair is chockablock with food, of course — including your usual carnival fare, such as funnel cakes and saltwater taffy. You can also sample deep-fried Pop-Tarts — or deep-fried anything else. I see a sign that says “Detroit-Style Pizza.” Hang on, now: I’m from southeastern Michigan, and I have never heard of Detroit-style pizza.

You want to get really weird? A particular item has been voted Craziest New Food for 2018. It’s called the Heart Attack, described as follows: “Two Hofmann hots [locally made sausages] stuffed with chili and cheddar cheese and pickles, wrapped in bacon and deep fried. Topped with cheddar cheese and jalapeños. Drizzled in chocolate sauce and served with a piece of Hershey’s chocolate. Served on a stick.”

I think of an old song about lollipops: “It’s a lick on a stick, guaranteed to make you sick.” They hadn’t seen anything yet.

The fair also has wonderfully wholesome food — for example, in the Dairy Products Building, my favorite place. I have a bowl of mac ’n’ cheese, followed by a dish of pumpkin custard. Bliss. This building also hosts the butter sculpture, a tradition begun in 1969. That first sculpture depicted the cow jumping over the moon. This year’s sculpture, made from 800 pounds of New York butter, features a kid taking a selfie with his calf (meaning his young cow, not part of his leg). A modern touch in an old-fashioned craft.

You can check out military hardware, such as a helicopter and a tank. Nearby is a boxing ring, where youngsters slug it out. (I’m surprised they allow it, even with headgear.) There is an Indian village, an Iroquois village, which has been here ever since 1928. Men and women sing and dance and chant. Elsewhere in the village you can sling a lacrosse ball.

The fair has some big-name entertainment, including Blondie, Smokey Robin­son, and the Temptations. But what about the small-name entertainment? What about, for example, Hilby, the Skinny German Juggler? He is no joke, let me tell you: He is positively brilliant, both physically and mentally. And how about those platform divers, performing their feats of derring-do? They, too, are brilliant, and brave. Awe-inspiring, really.

I think of what it must have been like to watch Blondin walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls in the 19th century. That took place not all that far from here.

I further think of the musicians I routinely review at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House: Are they more talented and more impressive than Hilby or the divers? How about professional athletes who are paid millions? Are they more talented and impressive? No, actually. And Hilby is scrounging for tips at state fairs. What the divers are paid, I don’t know — probably peanuts.

A state fair offers a lot for the money. I’ve paid ten dollars to get in (and nothing once inside, except for food — which has been cheap). Yesterday, Three-Dollar Thursday, I could have gotten in for that. The fair even has a Canadian Friendship Day, by the way: Canucks get in free. That’s not a bad idea in light of current U.S.–Canadian relations, which are strained.

The people-watching is hard to beat. I will offer a few observations — starting with parents and their children. I see many parents with children of other races (obviously adopted). I also see many parents with Down-syndrome children, whether young or grown.

There is a variety of political types. How do I know? Am I judging books by their covers? No, by their T-shirts. A lesbian couple has matching T-shirts that depict a rainbow and say “Love Wins.” A muscly young man has a T-shirt bearing Old Glory. It says, “Stomp My Flag, I’ll Stomp Your A**” (no asterisks on the T-shirt). One woman has a T-shirt that’s apolitical and interesting: “Feed Me Tacos and Tell Me I’m Beautiful.”

This fair is beautiful. It offers a pageant of people, and a pageant of events, not on screens. They are live and in person. And live and in animal, so to speak. I think of an old slogan, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Somewhere, a PA system is playing a song from the 1980s: “Shine, sweet freedom, shine your light on me.” What a beautiful day.

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