Sunday 18 September 2016

Fried Dough or Funnel Cake? A Highly Selective Guide to The Big E

 State fairs may seem quaintly anachronistic in the era of Monsanto and factory farming.  Will people really tear themselves away from playing Minecraft and binge-watching Netflix to see a butter sculpture or poultry judging?  Will they violate their no-carb diets for corn dogs and cotton candy?  Are there any kids still in 4-H or making jam and sewing quilts?  The answer, at least as of 2016, is a resounding yes.  Eastern States Exposition, known as The Big E, attracts close to 80,000 people per day for its annual 17-day run.

The Big E is a state fair on steroids.  100 years ago – there are special features for its centennial celebration this year – someone had the bright idea that the six New England states should hold, in addition to their individual state fairs, a humungous joint fair.  A fairgrounds was purpose-built for this endeavour, and the event has been held every year since, except during the two World Wars.  It can be overwhelming if you haven't been going since you were a kid.  I lived here for years and even attended Equine Affaire every November at the same location without ever finding out about The Big E.  One year a college where I adjuncted was selling discounted tickets to faculty, staff and students, so I enquired about it, and went on a whim.  I've gone back every year since.  Before I got an office job, I went on a weekday to avoid the weekend crowds.  This year, owing to unemployment, I was able to do that again, and I have created this little guide for the uninitiated.

It costs $10 to park in the main lot, plus the value of your time waiting to get in and out.  As you crawl along the road to the gate, there will be people trying to lure you into lots that belong to local businesses.  They also charge $10.  If traffic is moving excruciatingly slowly, and you want to get back on the road more easily later, there is no harm in parking at one of these and walking to the gate.  But bear in mind if you are planning to buy a lot of crap that you will have a long schlep back to your car.  Also, choose a lot across the road, on your left as you are inching toward the gate.  Trust me, you will not be able to make a left turn out of a lot from the right side when you need to get back to I-91 later.  Just before you get to the main gate, on the left, there is a lot that usually charges $5.  Park here if you can.  Tell them I sent you.  Actually, don't bother – they won't know who I am and wouldn't care anyway.  This small lot fills up early, so don't waste time getting your arse in gear in the morning.

Mallery Complex
The first building on your left is where the livestock judging takes place.  It is filled with cows, sheep, goats, and eager 4-Hers grooming and fussing over them.  Ignore the Wine & Cheese Barn out front, with its queue of people waiting for samples.  None of the wines or cheeses for sale there is unique to the fair – they're standard brands available at your local supermarket or off-license.  No need to waste time in that line.  In front of the Mallery is the Xmas tree judging, the obligatory butter sculpture, a display of historic tractors, if that sort of thing turns you on, and, uh, pig racing, if that sort of thing turns you on.  Otherwise, go right in and be amused by the oreo cows and the hooded sheep.  Go into the Fiber Nook and pet the yarn.  Petting the actual farm animals is forbidden, but it's ok to pet the fleeces and roving and skeins of alpaca and wool yarn that are for sale.  There is also, I am sorry to report, a refrigerator that opens to reveal animatronic dairy products that sing.  It is always surrounded by rapt children and bored parents.  I hate it with a ferocity that may seem alarming until you actually see and hear it yourself.
Don't say I didn't warn you.
Oreo cows.  They're really called Belted Galloways, but, let's face it,
no-one is ever going to call them anything but oreo cows.
Looks like this year's butter sculpture is shaping up to be a Hogwarts carriage pulled by a thestral.
I'm always rooting for a balsam to win.

It's Rapunzel at her wheel.
These sheep are not members of the Klan.  The hoods are to keep them clean for judging.
Aftermath of cotton candy booth explosion?  Nope, just sheep shearing.
Check out the balls on this ram.
Oh, look: A balsam won.
Young Building and Better Living Center
Next up on your left and across on your right are two buildings full of vendors hawking absolute crap.  It's like every shill from late night infomercials has been assembled in one place.  Unless you have some bizarre need to waste money on the world's best garlic peeler & nose-hair trimmer, must-be-seen-to-be-believed tarnish remover, incredible non-stick waffle iron, or assorted other garbage, keep walking and don't waste any time here.

Stroh Building (Farm-A-Rama)
If you have kids, prepare to spend half your time here.  If you don't, go in anyway.  This is the educational building with displays about farm animals and food production.  The Hallamore Clydesdales are in here (the Budweiser Clydesdales are in their own building at the far end on the right, go see them, too).  There are chickens and ducks, a nursing pig (she looks tired but if you had to raise 12 piglets with crowds staring at you all day, you would be, too), various dog breed demos, and a Peep Show.  Alas, this is not what you think it is.  It is a giant incubator full of hatching eggs.  You can watch the chicks peck their way out and then collapse in exhaustion.  There are baby goats—yes, you can indulge your urge to pet them.  There is also, to my everlasting horror, another animatronic singing food product display, this time veggies.  I loathe it as much as the dairy products one.  I think if I were six, it would give me nightmares. 

For some reason, the loos in this building have shorter lines so keep that in mind.
Tired mama.
It's a sexist, heteronormative nuclear family.
New England Center
The winning crafts are displayed here – knitting, crochet, lace, quilts, photography, etc.  Take time to admire them and marvel at the skill they took to make.
Winning beaded lace shawls.
Snowflakes: A sampler after my own heart.
The photo doesn't do justice to the detail in this sampler.
Grand champion beaded lace shawl.
I like the bump out for the skirt.
The horse show takes place here.  When you want to get off your feet for awhile, sit in the stands and watch impossibly cute pairs of girls in braids on Thelwell ponies go haughtily over the jumps.  Be jealous that your parents weren't rich enough to buy you a pony when you were that age.  Be bitter that you weren't ever in Pony Club and had to take two buses to get to the nearest stable and work and beg for lessons.  Allow your bitterness to consume you and ruin the lovely day.  No, don't do that.  Don't do that at all.  Enjoy the horse show.

Craft Common
Slightly less crappy crafts for sale in this fenced off yard and small building, but still mostly overpriced junk.  There is one vendor from whom I buy leaf earrings every year.

Storrowton Village
Think of Colonial Williamsburg or Historic Deerfield in miniature, and you have an idea of what this collection of historic buildings, brought from various towns and reassembled as one small village, is like.  A haven from the crowds, this is the place to spend much of your time.  Go into each building.  Talk to the costumed docents.  Watch the blacksmith demo.  Sit in the one-room schoolhouse and read the blackboard.  Sit on the shady lawn with some kettle corn (overpriced, but good) and contemplate whether you really want to buy something fragile in the gift shop and carry it around for the rest of the day (answer: no).
Outside the one-room schoolhouse
Hampden County Building
Tucked away in here, easily missed if crowds are blocking the view of the sandwich board outside that is the only advertising, is a miniature circus display.  It is dusty and old-fashioned.  The walls are covered in old circus posters.  It is a relative haven of peace and quiet and worth a visit.

New England Grange Building
The grange is a political, social, and community organisation for farmers that was founded just after the Civil War.  It still promotes policies that benefit farmers and rural communities but I am not certain there is anyone under 90 involved at this point.  The basement of the building is given over to an outpost of Yankee Candle, so just ignore that.   The main floor sells some acrylic crafts and over-sweetened jams that are the sort of things you'd have to politely thank your great aunt for and then never use.  The upstairs has a room dedicated to each of the six New England states' granges.  There is sometimes a docent who will be eager to chat with you about the artefacts in the room.  I recommend it as an interesting slice of history and another escape from the crowds.  You will be the only one there.

Midway, Music, and More
There is a ginormous midway full of carnival rides, games, and more junk food than you can shake a strip of candy buttons at, but I have never crossed under the archway and entered this area of the fair.  Never once.  I don't see the appeal of wasting $10 to throw a ball to not win a cheap stuffed animal, nor of watching people puking up their chilli dog and beers on the Tilt-A-Whirl.  And that death trap that looks like a circular swing set except the swings are raised high on a pole and fly around it horizontally with centrifugal force?  I don't want to be in range when the chairs fall off.
The midway is thataway.
When I was about five, a carnival came to town and I begged my mother to let me ride the carousel because horses.  As the ride ended, another little girl touched a pole as she got off and was electrocuted.  She lived, but it was quite a shock.  It could have been me.  I have never trusted the safety of carnival rides since and won't go near them.

There are atrocious music acts, and various forms of low-brow entertainment in the evenings.  I have never stayed after dark to attend them so I can't offer any advice in that area.

I would also avoid the animal rides – the cruelty of elephants and camels being kept in captivity for this purpose is appalling.  They look disheartened and bored, their spirits broken and hope gone.  Even the ponies are mistreated, stuck going in a circle all day giving rides to screaming and flailing children.

The people watching is kind of like an outdoor version of the People of Wal-Mart.  It's pretty frightening, even if you aren't already a misanthrope.  And the fact that half the teens appear to be pregnant is depressing when you want desperately to have children.  T-shirts spotted include: "We the People are wicked pissed" (not sure which kind of pissed or why); "You're at the top of my To-Do list" (charming); "Official Hooters Hiring Supervisor -> Apply Here" (keep it classy, dude).  One tall guy walked by me staring at my tits and exclaimed, "It's a beautiful day."  It's a mystery how he could assess the weather when he was looking down. (No, he wasn't the Hooters guy.)
It's a beautiful day.
Food & the Avenue of States
Admit it, this is what you are really here for: The excuse to eat the most egregious junk food with relative impunity.  And you will find the most egregious junk food on the planet here.  The Big E's signature burger is a bacon cheeseburger served on a glazed donut for a bun.  The Pork Palace serves a BBQ Sundae that looks even more disgusting than it sounds.  There are exotic animal burgers from kangaroo to alligator, and pretty much anything you can picture deep-fried, and some things you can't, e.g. deep-fried martini.  From the front gate onwards, the paths are lined with food vendors selling typical fair food.  Ignore all of them and keep walking straight to the Avenue of States at the very back.
I did say deep-fried everything.
The poor nutrition is rivalled only by the poor grammar.
The Avenue of States is a row of six state houses that represent each of the New England states.  Each is filled with vendors selling food and products associated with that state.

Rhode Island showcases seafood, selling chowder, clam cakes and assorted other fishy dishes.  For dessert, there is chocolate-covered bacon and $20 candy apples.  I can't fathom anyone eating the former or spending money on the latter.  It's the smallest building, with the fewest vendors.  Has anyone ever actually been to Rhode Island?  I'm told it exists, but I don't think I know anyone who has actually been there and can prove it.

I've never heard a satisfactory explanation for why this is necessary.
Yes, that does say $18.95, plus tax.
Maine is blueberries and lobster, although not in the same dish, thank goodness.  Also, oddly, potatoes.  The queue of people waiting to fork over $6.50 for a baked potato is astonishing.  Potatoes are so cheap and simple to make at home, I don't understand why people are willing to waste money or calories on one at the fair.

New Hampshire can't seem to find its own niche.  It piggybacks on the New England seafood thing, with a lobster mac'n'cheese that, despite its obscene price of $16, is absurdly popular.  It also gets in on the maple thing, with maple cotton candy and assorted other maple treats.  There used to be a vendor called The Soap Guy who sold really nice handmade soaps and bath bombs.  One year, he wasn't there but his usual booth spot was empty, meaning he had cancelled too close to the event for them to find a replacement.  Turns out he had died of a congenital heart ailment just before the Big E.  Scary.
Get your $16 lobster mac'n'cheese here. Or don't, if you have any sense.
Because they can't let Vermont have all the maple fun.
The creativity may be at its best, but the grammar isn't. 
New Hampshire: We have bears here, too.
Massachusetts goes for a cranberry theme, and the humanely-raised turkey pot pies are my go-to lunch option every year.  Some of the best food is in here.
Where else but a fair are you gonna eat with a spork?
Connecticut's food specialty is, uh, Pez,  And Legos.  There's also a tobacco display, a vineyard promotion, and a huge booth for Mohegan Sun.  Apparently, people in Connecticut drink and smoke and pop Pez whilst they play with their Legos and gamble.  Keep it classy, Connecticut.
Connecticut gets political.
Connecticut: Come for the giant Lego sculpture, eat elsewhere.
Vermont, of course, has the best building and the best vendors.   There's a chocolate shop from Bennington with autumn-leaf-themed chocolates, a Ben & Jerry's (which you can skip, since you can get that anywhere), wood-fired pizza, maple everything (really), ice cider, cookies, and crafts and clothing that are actually good quality – buy something from the organic and environmentally-responsible Vermont Clothing Company, and Danforth Pewter.  When I told Danforth Pewter that the autumn maple leaf keychain I had bought last year had chipped, they replaced it.  They stand behind everything they make, and it's all lovely and leafy.

They make lots of nice crap from wood in Vermont.
Elbow your way through the crowds to Danforth Pewter
Flannel goes well with Vermont
More chocolate covered bacon.  Why?! 
Bacon s'mores!  This is getting out of hand. 
Skip it - you can get this anytime.
More flannel, because you can never have too much in a Vermont winter.
Or a Vermont summer.

(Ok, so I was a little harsh on Connecticut.  They do have an old-fashioned soda vendor, with root beer, birch beer, and sarsaparilla, as well as Good Old Boys lemonade (get the limeade and ask for less sugar), and ice cream (try scoops of the Pumpkin Pie and Graham Central Station with hot fudge).)
Whoops.  I forgot to take a photo of the ice cream.  How did that happen?

1 comment:

  1. Haha! You know I grew up in the town right next door to the Big E (with the unfortunate name of Agawam) You hit all the highs and lows quite accurately, I must say.

    I have been going to this fair all my life. I skip it for several years, than am compelled to return for nostalgic reasons. It's never really as exciting as I hope it will be: I think I must be a cynic because it never quite gets beyond the experience of overindulging on mostly mediocre food (that has the added bonus of being really bad for you) too many tourists and crying children, and the discomfort at bearing witness the patient suffering of animals held in captivity in a place that continually overstimulates them. Could you imagine having to live in that environment for 17 days? Ugh...