I grew up going to the Lake County fair held each year in that county’s largest city, Lakeport, California, but when back in Oakland, I attended the Alameda County Fair in the outlying sleepy suburb of Pleasanton. These fairs I attended during dusty summers have meant many different things to me over the years. When I was little, the fair meant going on flashy-honky rides with accompanying rock music, or trying to win an impossible game of plastic rings thrown over coke bottlenecks for ridiculously sized stuffed animals. It also meant sticky treats found nowhere else in the world like candy apples, funnel cakes, and crunchy sweet corn dogs.
Overall, fairs have always exuded a sense of outdoor wonderment and magic, with two vastly different lives; one at night and the other in the daytime.
In the daytime, fairs deliver its serious business as an exhibition site of the county’s finest. That covers everything like coddled 4-H livestock, homemade preserves, photography, chili cook-offs, table setting displays (yes, table setting) and much, much more. This show of local competition and talent can typically be found inside of the massive exhibition hall, where judges place items like prize winning snicker-doodles inside a glass case on a paper doily.
Basically, the aim of the exhibition is to showcase the best ideas, recipes, creativity, and problem solvers of the county. Think of it as a massive science fair where everyone from senior citizens to kindergarteners have a shot at demonstrating their knowledge across many categories, and winning a prize for it. To make it fair, the competition is leveled so only similarly aged individuals compete with one another within the different areas.
Night time at the fair brings out a different crowd. Flirty youth arrive en masse; the rides and games seem more bright and loud. Obviously, I enjoyed this time most when I was a teenager, when I was eager to part ways with my parents at the entrance gate and try out social independence under the fun-house mystery of the nighttime sky.
For some years in my 20’s I abandoned the fair, absorbed in more serious pursuits like starting a family. But once my first child was a toddler, to the fair I returned.
With a vengeance.
Not only did I return to the fair as a daytime visitor, I was also determined to enter my family famous cornbread-from-scratch recipe in the competition. And I was serious as a heart attack about this. I carefully filled out the Fair Competition form online then woke up on entry day at 5am to bake a fresh pan to deliver 40 miles away, while it was still warm. Of course, my friends (and some family) thought this was silly.
But I earned some bragging rights when the fair opened a few days later, and I saw my very own cornbread squares sitting in a glass case, on a paper doily – – with a winning ribbon!
My cornbread was judged on the basis of taste, texture, and get this: cell wall uniformity. In other words, it mattered that the gazillion holes inside the bread where all roughly about the same size. Wow.
So I won 2nd place in the Quick Breads Non-Yeast category. 1st place went to a Carrot “Bread” that to this day I think was mis-categorized since it had frosting and was entirely too sexy to be practical. But I digress. Winning that ribbon was totally worth the effort that embodied all the fair experiences of my youth, with the satisfaction of sharing my personal best with my community.
I think I’ll go for the Table-Setting competition next time.
Do you still go to the fair? What are some of your fair memories?
Alameda County Fair
Lake County Fair – Coming up!
Click to view your State Fair dates!