too many words by laura lemay

Fear and loathing at the santa clara county fair

I spent much of this last sunday and monday working the Santa Clara County Fair, 40 acres chock full of of blue ribbon prize-winning hogs, atrocious 60’s cover bands, scarily fabricated carnival rides run by even scarier individuals, and all the chili fries, cotton candy and hot-dogs-on-a-stick you can stuff into your pudgy rural american craw while you lounge on the grass in the shade by the giant blow-up Budweiser can.

Now, thing one to realize is that I am a genuine bona fide card-carrying City Folk. While I live in the mountains now, I grew up in the city, lived in the city, and the closest I ever came to a farm was when I was in second grade and they brought some cows to Boston Common and then bussed us kids in to make sure we knew where milk came from (our second-grader City Folk reaction: “it squirts out of *there*?!? eugh! ick! gross!”) So for me, going to the County Fair for the first time was a major cultural revelation.

First cultural revelation. There are these things called chickens. I thought there was only one kind of chicken. A chicken is a chicken is a chicken…right? Turns out, as I perused the chicken pens, that there are something like 600 different breeds of chickens, including small brown pygmy chickens, gigantic chickens that look like they could take you in a dark alley (with HUGE LONG CLAWS), chickens with yard-long purple tail feathers, and chickens with huge ruffled feathers around thier necks that look really comical. And people breed and compete these chickens just like they’re in dog or cat shows. There was only one person there who was daintily brushing her chicken’s feathers and I didn’t dare ask her if all the different breeds of chicken tasted the same, because I somehow suspected that these chickens were somehow above plain old eating chickens. But I couldn’t be sure.

While I was in the chicken pens I had my second cultural revelation. Next to the chicken pens were the pigeon pens, where the pigeon people were competing with at least 100 different colors and kinds of pigeons. Regular, ordinary grey pigeons you see in every city park in the world.

Let me repeat that for the other city folk in the audience so you can all gawp in horror like I did.

People are raising, breeding, and entering **PIGEONS** in competitions at county fairs.

Does one eat pigeons? Ye gods, I hope not.

Next to the bird barn was the sheep and swine barn, where I got to watch the judging of some of the sheep. This was the yearling female sheep-with-dark-heads class, and there was probably some other distinctions in there, but I wasn’t paying close enough attention. It was just like a dog show. The sheep are measured and felt up and thier teeth are looked at and they’re trotted around a ring. Unlike dogs, they really don’t much look like they’re enjoying it. “We have an obvious winner here,” said the judge after the final decision was made, and the winner was a particularly BIG and STOCKY sheep. There’s one aspect of livestock competition that comes into play that you don’t get with dogs or cats and that’s how much meat you can get when you slaughter them. eeek.

Speaking of meat, the food at the Fair was not what you would quite call healthy. You would never guess that Santa Clara county is probably the wine and cheese festival capital of the world from this crowd, because your choices on the menu here were effectively meat, meat, and meat, your choice of grilled, deep fried, or drowned within an inch of its life in BBQ sauce, and with serving varieties of on a bun, in tinfoil, or on a stick. Your choice of beverage was varied as long as it was a weak american beer beginning with B, or you could manage to extract a soda out of the many generous vendors for the mere sum of $4.50.

Which is not to say that I went hungry, because if you can manage to forget that you’re paying $25 for a small hamburger, fries and a coke, and that the former two will contain enough grease to heat the house over a cold December, the food is actually good (no, really). I myself partook of a so-called Philly Cheese Steak (meat, grilled, on a bun), and a small bucket of curly garlic fries. Later on I even indulged in carnival food including a sno-cone (yum) and a small bag of cotton candy (yum yum). Now two days later its still all working through my system but I hope to be regaining proper gastrointestinal funtioning any day now.

You may have noticed way up there that I posted that I was not visiting the Santa Clara County Fair, but rather I was *working* the Santa Clara County Fair. Indeed, I am a member of my local beekeeper’s guild, which has a booth in the agriculture section with a glass-sided bee hive, so I was sitting by the hive to answer questions from kids. Kids have lots of important questions about bees (“do they have butt holes?” “why is that one carrying a huge booger?” “hey, are those two humping?”) which I was all too willing to answer, being the willing educational volunteer that I am.

The agricultural section was in between two performance stages, from which I was regaled during my shifts with either a. terrible country bands. b. terrible 60’s cover bands. c. tap dancers. d. a fairly good mexican singer, backed up by what sounded like a chorus of 6-year-old-girls, and e., the final straw, what definitely sounded like a high school chorus, doing a far-too-long medley of bad 60’s and 80’s pop songs (arranged for 4-part harmony). The latter was confirmed for me later on in the afternoon on monday when I was able to see another shift of said high school chorus, and not only was there singing, but there was a whole team of dancers as well. I wanted to scream “HAVE YOU NO SHAME” but instead I ran for the nearest building, which, it turned out, was the “Stop and Shop Expo.”

Have you ever seen the Harriet Carter catalog? cheesy household stuff, gag gifts for old people and strange middle-america knick-knacks? This place was the Harriet Carter catalog made flesh. I no sooner entered the building than a woman with bleached hair four feet high offered to do my nails. Her selection was a wide variety of pinks and reds, with little sparklies and stars and tattoos. Her own nails were at least four inches long, or would have been had they not been curved into claws (kind of like the big chickens, actually). I whimpered in terror and moved deeper into the expo.

The corridors were lined with household aids, strange jewelry, and gifts of dubious value (“I Will Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice”). One booth was full of anti-abortion bumper stickers that said things like “I love babies” against a backdrop of an american flag. They had a very strange stand at the front of thier booth that had two tiny little feet propped up on it with a sign that said “These are the feet of an 8-week old fetus.” I had to strongly resist the urge to ask how much a small bucket of BBQ fetus feet were.

After the fetus feet incident, I came to the rapid conclusion that the Stop and Shop Expo was Not for Me, so I beat a hasty retreat for the outside.

Outside, we had displays of Dodge trucks, displays of antique tractors, displays of the local country music stations. There were buggy rides for the kids and actual freak shows (“See the 1000 Pound Pig! Only 50c!”). I watched a calf being born and stood there awestruck outside the stall for forty-five minutes while it slowly staggered to its feet. Cultural revelation number three: watching animals being born is way darn cool (yucky, but way darn cool nonetheless).

In short, I think I might have had fewer revelations going to mars than I did going to the County Fair. But I had a grand time, and I will go back next year (assuming, of course, there is a next year — Santa Clara Valley, AKA Silicon Valley, is rapidly losing what agriculurual heritage it has left). This card-carrying City Folk highly recommends it.