If this were a usual year, it would be the opening weekend of the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh; but the pandemic has taken yet another enjoyment away that we have taken for granted. That event has been part of our state’s history since it opened in 1853. Back when most people were from farm families, “the mission of the fair was to showcase and promote the state’s agriculture, agribusiness, arts, crafts and culture through the annual agricultural fair.” https://www.ncstatefair.org/2019/Newsroom/History.htm
Since I grew up on a farm, I have early memories of the excitement of the upcoming fairs, starting with our local Lee County Fair in early September. I associated it with the first of the school year: the smell of dry grass, the feel of new school clothes, the taste of hard yellow pears from the tree near our pasture. The Sunday afternoon before the start of the fair, we gathered our family’s entries that would be displayed with others in the Exhibit Hall.
Daddy picked scuppernong grapes from our large vine that had been planted by his parents. Those golden-brown orbs will always be the sweet taste of fair season to me. He picked the most perfectly shaped and even-colored ones and placed them in an Ann Page pie pan; presentation was important– even for grapes.
Mama entered canned goods, including shiny-clean Mason jars of green beans. She was a skilled seamstress and entered winter coats, suits, and dresses.
We three girls were encouraged to take part, too. One of the motivators was the prize money if we won a ribbon– a blue or red for first and second place. We’d take the money and use it a month later when we’d attend the state fair. Our first entry was sugar cookies–but with the addition of coconut flavoring–we labeled them as ‘coconut cookies’ which may have given our sugar cookies a competitive edge.
One year we were loading the back of our Chevrolet with paper plates of cookies. We left the car door open to go back into the house. While we were away, our Collie-mix, Ruff got into the cookies and ate several plates before we caught him. At first I was so mad at my dog, thinking about all the time I’d baked instead of played, all the money that I may have lost. But that dog was my favorite, and I couldn’t stay mad at my best friend for long.
On a weekday afternoon, we’d go to our county fair and head first to the Exhibit Hall to see if we had a coveted blue ribbon, or a lesser, red ribbon on our cookies. We’d add up how many dollars we’d made for our future trip to Raleigh. Then we’d visit the livestock barn, where I lingered at the cows, rubbing their soft noses and inhaling the smell of hay.
Soon it would be time to eat and the fair food, even at the county level, was always tasty. There would be hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage dogs with grilled onions and peppers, and golden hand-cut fries. More tempting than those foods were the rainbow-colored cotton candy and shiny red candy apples. I had to be careful not to overeat because as soon as I was old enough, I liked to ride the ‘adult’ rides; those were the ones that turned upside down or moved at lightening speeds.
Every-other-year our family would go to the state fair. One of the things I loved most about that was we’d go on a weekday to avoid the weekend crowds. That meant I carried a note that day to Jonesboro School that said, “Please excuse Connie to leave at 12:30. We’re attending the State Fair.” Nothing was more exciting than a shortened school day, a drive to Raleigh, an afternoon riding lots of rides, and leaving in the chill of the fall evening under the magic of the colorful lights.
After I went off to college, I didn’t go to the Lee County or N.C.State fairs very often. There were a few trips with my sons but not the annual tradition that I’d grown up with. Mama continued to participate in various ways– including judging the baked goods. But what she talked about the most, what she truly enjoyed was going on ‘Senior Day’ with her family and friends–some of whom were fellow members at Shallow Well Church. I love this picture from October 1989 in front of the Flower Pavilion at the state fair.
I think about what the fair has meant to people over the years, how it marked the end of the harvest and brought people together as a time of celebration. Farm families worked hard and were unable to control the weather that impacted their crops. They brought for all to see– whether on their pie pans or paper plates, the best the year had given them.
There have been other years when the N.C State Fair has been canceled, including from 1861-1868 due to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Life took a pause from the annual fair celebration while more pressing concerns took precedence. Now, we’re experiencing such a pause and we can only look to our stored memories to enjoy the fair in this season.
Of we three sisters, only the oldest, Harriet has continued to enter baked goods in the fair. She’s progressed from coconut cookies to cakes and pies and other confections. She’s an accomplished baker and over the years has had a side business of making wedding cakes, including mine. She also made the cake for my book launch.
I asked her to provide one of her winning recipes that I could share with you. She chose the most profitable entry, more than the few dollars we earned on our plates of coconut cookies, her Chocolate Fantasy Pie awarded her $500.00. My older sister would pick the fair that is said to pay some of the highest premiums of any in the U.S.
Maybe since we can’t enjoy any of that fair food in person, we can use Harriet’s recipe to make a blue-ribbon-winning pie or you can find one of your family’s fair favorites and give it another try.