Remember that time I stood staring at Princess Kay of the Milky Way as her head was carved out of butter? Well, if you don’t, I do. It was my very first visit to the Minnesota State Fair. According to fairgoers, theirs is the fair to end all fairs so, my second fair; the San Diego County Fair had a lot to live up to.
Before attending, I rang my resident fair expert, Cara (the one who first told me about those butter headed princesses), to see what I should know in advance, what type of ticket to buy and what to look for-and as always, she didn’t disappoint. We followed her advice and parked away from the fair lot, since we were then able to take advantage of the free shuttles taking us right up to the front gate. Even better, my husband finally got his first ever ride on a big yellow school bus! Prior to arriving, we were already grinning from ear to ear.
Now, we knew this was a county fair instead of a state fair and California instead of Minnesota, but; fair’s fair when going to a fair, right? Held at the Del Mar Race Track, this month-long extravaganza blends huge crowds, massive food, interesting animal events and all things fried. Some things we expected while others sent our eyes wide and mouths agape. You’ll have to decide for yourself, but we’ll probably head back for a second day!
This year’s theme, A Fair to Remember, paid homage to world’s fairs past while celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Balboa Park. With an exhibit showcasing foods that were first shown at previous fairs (like ice cream cones, tootsie rolls and cracker jacks), the fair provides various avenues for fun. And as all fairs seem to be about the food, this one held its own! Turkey legs the size of Montana, fried everything (from bacon, to avocado, to frogs legs to chocolate dipped Slim Fast bars), and corn dogs longer than any dog I’ve ever seen. There’s the farming section, where although there’s no judging of the great pumpkin, there were lessons in organic planting, composting and posters sharing ideas of how to plant in a drought. The horses were on display where I finally got up close to the beautiful animals my best friend’s daughter rides weekly. American Paint, Miniature, Fjord and various others stood in their grandeur for all to see. Reminding me of scenes from Zuckerman’s Famous Pig of Charlotte’s Web, we strode through the barnyard animal section. While some waited patiently to be judged, others just wanted to play, eat, frolic or be shown some love. Pygmy goats and piglets, pigeons and puppies and cows and calves shared their talents, feathers and hearts with fairgoers galore.
For the wild and wacky, there are the races. Due to timing we only got to see one-but it was enough to leave an impression. If you can catch it, the Turkey Stampede should be as ridiculous as it sounds, but sadly, we missed that one. What we did see was, wait for it, swine racing! Seriously! No harm came to any animal and all got treats and cuddles at the end, but yes, you read correctly…swine racing! Given numbered coverings and headed for a treat at the end, within seconds, first piglets, then older swines were unleashed to circle a small track for the win! Music played, people squealed and hogs hefted themselves to the finish line. This was a sight to see.
Amidst rides, friendly firefighters, trinkets and hordes, we found a friend. Flying high above a brightly adorned booth were four Australian flags enticing us closer. Hearing the familiar accent of the woman in a red shirt organizing the staff, in the next forty-five minutes we had an encounter that rivals that of the butter heads-we got to go behind the barricades and inside a booth to get a first-hand glimpse at the inner workings of a fair stand. Carmel and Mat shared accents, but all of us quickly became best buds. She had no idea what either of us did for a living – she was just friendly and happy to chat with another Aussie and family.
Hailing from Sydney, Carmel now splits her time between Australia and California. Having been in the business for almost forty years and running her own stand for more than half of that, this peppy Aussie shared her story. She and her husband (who runs the giant slide at the Minnesota State Fair) work fairs around the world. Often times it takes weeks beforehand just to set up the stand, hire and train staff, order supplies and get things ready for opening day. From Sydney to California to Minnesota, year after year, she and her fair family show up to give customers their delicious treats-Australian Battered Potatoes!
We know them as potato cakes, but both of us agreed, they’re far better than any potato cake we’ve ever eaten from fish and chip shops in Oz. She let us pop in to meet her staff, some who return annually and a few new ones (like the cheerful girl who dished up sauces and the friendly boy slicing potatoes), check out the digs and taste battered goodness on a plate. Now it was about the people, and for me, this was the highlight of the fair! We chatted behind the scenes with Carmel and her friend Anne (who pops over to help out with all three US based fairs for the summer season) about what it takes to run a fair stand, the interesting people they meet and the all day insanity that is fair season. On a more massive scale, it reminded me or what it was like to run the concession stand at the high school football games. The memories, lessons and people are what stand out, but the craziness of the prep, the work and the utter exhaustion take center stage for the hours and days of the event. With no days off, and no downtime during the entire fair season, Carmel is passionate, positive and pleasant with her staff, her guests and she quickly made two strangers feel like family.
We listened while filling our bellies with a plate of the freshest battered potatoes we’ve ever had. We got the ‘hot as the outback’ flavour topped with sriracha, a kick of extra magic spice, and the heartwarming taste of Australia. She gave us drinks, potatoes, tickets to return to the fair, kindness and a memory, that for us, won’t soon fade.
We left the fair with even bigger smiles than we arrived. Within minutes I’d already sent Cara (my Minnesota fair guru) a photo and the reply was exactly as expected. She knew the stand and couldn’t wait to say hello to Carmel and friends in August. What might be ‘just another day at the fair’ for the potato wheeling team, turned into a special memory for the two of us. Perhaps the next time we might just catch that Turkey Stampede and spend time watching the one man band perform, but you can bet we won’t miss our chance to visit our friend Carmel for a taste of home in the form of hot, crispy, battered potatoes. See you at the fair!