Friends are coming next month to go to the State Fair---they've mapped out a travel route amongst some several states, with the dates of the State Fairs governing their schedule. They will be here sometime from the 8th to the 23rd, I think---this year is a TWO-week Fair, a first for us, and so they'll have a choice of forward or back as far as their passing through.
We went together last year, when they managed to hit only five or so of the many. It was a blisteringly-hot day, and I was in company with two young ladies---one exactly a year old, all SPF1000'ed and shaded by a big canopy on her pink stroller, as well as like-clockwork bathes of her face and arms and neck from cloths wrung out from the ice water in the tiny cooler in her rumbleseat.
My other companion was the granddaughter of our friends, and she was a a lively, chatty young lady, all eagerness and cheer, ready to ride everything and taste everything and skip ahead and then back to tell me of the wonders in store. It was a glorious day, and I enjoyed it immensely, despite the heat and trying to keep the girls hydrated and together and moving into cool spots as often as possible.
I love the IDEA of the Fair, and especially the "Home Arts" building---what we call the "Quilts and Pickles" exhibits. Chris always heads for the photography exhibit, and I always wander the cool downstairs for hours. Case after display case, rank-on-rank of styrofoam saucers (each with the de rigueur paper doily), holding slices of pie, hunks of cake, great chunks of pumpkin loaf and banana bread and coffeecake; some with daintily-placed hand-dipped candies, pinwheels of chocolate or strawberry or green (mint, I suppose, as I suppress an urge to run away), swirled through crisp cookie circles. Neat squares of homemade fudge and nougat and brownies, made by hands ranging from kitchen pros, great-grandmothers, longtime bakers and cooks, to the newest in the line: 4-H and Girl Scout and Brownie members, setting their rice crispie squares and haystacks and roll-and-slice cookies right out there in contention for ribbons and awards.
There were wedding cakes, towering masterpieces of architecture decorated in every rainbow hue, plus some jewel tones and gold-brushed highlights and pearled drops. A castle towered three tiers, with precise sugar-cube crenellations ranged just SO. Gingerbread houses with their Christmas canes and pretzel woodpiles and ice-cream-cone shrubbery and snowy lawns seemed a season early, (two of the houses sadly sagged, and one completely collapsed---a discreet sign announcing that the houses were in perfect condition when they were judged) sat incongruously beside market baskets filled with marzipan vegetables, fruit, pigs, chickens and ribbons of all colors, honoring the sesquicentennial anniversary of the fair.
The same apologetic little signs cropped up inside several of the glass cases, since this was the final day of a ten-day run of the show. The moisture evaporating from all the cake and pie and cookies, leaving them shriveled, cracking vestiges of their former selves, their colors faded and their crusts crumbling, must have had a dampening effect on all the toffees, the lollipops, the divinity. Little saucers held pools of caramelly brown, with errant nut bits floating lazily in the mire; puddles of red or green held little white sucker-sticks forlornly askew, and others of the dainty doilies clung wearily to clusters of slumpy meringue, testament that the divinity held up as long as it could.
And jar after jar of jewelly jams and shining jellies and ketchups and chowchows, pickles and beans and the even, soldier-alert asparagus, its tips steamed into grayish clumps by the waterbath's long bubbling.
There were beautiful things, and delicious-looking things and outright genius in some of those creations; there were blue-ribbon winners that shone out, true and clean, and others that I guess you just had to be there--to taste and to see on the day they were delivered.
And a few made you wonder what WERE the judges thinking (or drinking) at the time of the award. I look every year into those cases, and I swear that NEXT year, for sure, I'm gonna enter a loaf of my Mom's banana bread, some of our fudge, my green and wonderful lime pickles, their perfectly-matched slices gleaming in the gently-spiced liquid, and my picked-at-their-perfect-moment canned green beans.
But every year, I leave it til too late, and then go and admire the handiwork of others. I read the names from the tags, recognize a few from days gone by or a few cases over, and admire these committed homemakers, these canners and bakers and workers of magic with the bounty of our fields. They are artists, every one.