The early West Virginia state fairs used to close in the middle of the day for venue-wide picnics; an 1896 exhibitors’ guide notes the menu of “fried chicken, potato salad, fresh tomatoes and other fresh garden vegetables.” In 1921, someone named Harry Wheadon performed his “Sensational Novelty Slack Wire Act.” Today, I order my plate of fried chicken and coleslaw packed in a Styrofoam cup from the State Fair Cafeteria, spotless and awash in fluorescent light and white surfaces, the food plain but satisfying, like that of holes-in-the-wall where chefs insist they eat on their days off.
The livestock and agriculture area is a realm of sensory chaos: braying goats, giant hogs in repose, the air sharp and deep and metallic. I can’t help but reframe my own weaknesses against the brute effort contained here, the elemental work of blood and earth, the business of raising something to kill it. In the show pavilion, on a groomed green course, baby-faced teenagers stand with their calves. Not far away, young people board sweaty carnival rides and make out in the timid, determined way of teenagers everywhere—though in this world the kids have stage nerves but also an oceanic calm, a command of their situation. A man parts a distracted crowd so that he can pass through, leading a massive bull behind him, and I understand how people might come to worship cattle. At a nearby station, a woman from the West Virginia University Extension Service asks, with step-right-up showmanship, which vegetable- and meat-shaped magnets on the whiteboard beside her should be water-bath canned and which should be pressure canned. In a walk-through vegetable garden, another demonstrates how to harvest coriander seeds from bolted cilantro.
Elsewhere on the fairgrounds, amongst the rides, stretches a seemingly endless horizon of food stands: more dining options, surely, than exist in many small towns. Sixty-nine food and drink purveyors have registered, both commonplace peddlers of a greasy bacchanalia of cheesesteaks and deep-fried Oreos and more idiosyncratic vendors, such as the West Virginia Cattlemen’s Steak Wagon and the ham stand run by a local high school’s FFA chapter, where I eat a salty country-ham biscuit and drink Dr. Pepper while a teenager named Cora points out which flashing attractions will make me puke.
For dessert, inevitably, I indulge in the funnel cake, hot and coiled tight, challenging the infrastructure of a paper plate. I can barely eat half of it, but it has to be done. The fried dough tastes like August in Monongalia County—and reminds me, oddly, of the roasted corn I used to eat there at our own little fair. It was nothing special, just corn dipped in butter, but in that char and salt was the taste of teenage independence, of wearing baggy men’s jeans and tight baby-doll t-shirts and squeezing hours of narrow but triumphant freedom out of an attraction that you could lap in twenty minutes. And now I remember another moment, the one after the roasted corn, the one before the quiet walk to the gravel parking lot beneath the sinking summer sun.
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