There was a time when America’s south-west was a sprawling, harsh, unforgiving land where sombre, sombrero-wearing, gun-slinging rancheros and crusty cattlemen struggled to survive. Somehow, the towns there grew, families developed roots, and suddenly there were a large number of people who realized that the entertainment provided by church fairs alone wouldn’t cut it. They needed a place where the entire county could gather, compare each other’s livestock, shake a leg at a dance, and deep-fry some animals in batter, or some sugar in dough, or both. And perhaps it was thus that the great fairs and festivals of the south-west came into being.
County, town and state fairs and festivals are a still-enduring slice of Americana, particularly in that enormous stretch of country between the coasts dubbed “middle America”. Since (at least for Texans) it doesn’t get more heartland than Texas, some of the very biggest fairs it’s home to. After a stiflingly hot Texas summer where outdoor entertainment is hard, and most of us swing between yet another Michael Bay movie or another very late evening barbecue (with Bay winning narrowly because of cinema air conditioning), it is almost with eager anticipation that we await September, when fair and festival season begins.
It isn’t for nothing that “big” is synonymous with Texas. This is a larger-than-life place where even food comes in medium, large, extra large and “Texas-size”. Unsurprisingly, county and state fairs stick to the state’s motto of “bigger and better”. And the biggest daddy of them all is in the fair city of Dallas, where the 50ft cowboy mascot, Big Tex, waves in the wind, welcoming visitors to the annual State Fair of Texas. A century ago, Dallas was a forgotten stop during cattle drives on the way to neighbouring Fort Worth. But in true Texas tradition, the Dallas-based forefathers of this fair had dreams as big as this state itself, and started organizing a great fair in the middle of almost nowhere.
The fair south: (left) The skyway at the State Fair of Texas; and fire and belly dancers at the Texas Renaissance Festival. Photographs by Frank Kovalchek/Wikimedia Commons
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Today, come September, Fair Park in burgeoning downtown Dallas becomes the location for the biggest state fair in the country. It is a fair on steroids, giving “supersize” a new definition. The massive Ferris wheel is over 200ft tall, and claims to be the biggest in the world. As it rotates slowly and reaches the sky, we struggle to keep our eyes open, holding back extreme nausea. At the top, the free-flowing aerial view of Dallas is spectacular.
But beneath all the entertainment, this fair is all about the food. This may be an era of yoga, Acai berry health drinks and spinach snacks, but “healthy” is a foreign word in the State Fair dictionary. All pretensions of healthy living are thrown out of the window as the State Fair confidently declares itself to be the fried-food capital of Texas, aka the world. This fair is conceived on the very simple concept that frying improves the taste of everything. Walking around, you can find fried ice cream, fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fried banana splits, fried Fritos pies and yes, fried beer. If there exists something that can give you an instant coronary heart attack, it probably has been fried and served at the fair.
A lifetime of fairly Spartan eating with the occasional indulgence failed miserably to prepare me for this dazzling palette of the fattest and sweetest foods the south and south-west can conjure. While I’m distracted by fried Snickers bars, my more discerning friends walk past, ignore silly diversions and experiment with, say, Cajun-style food, alligator steaks or skewers. And for sheer masochistic voyeurism, we gawkers all head towards the mandatory eating contests to observe food gladiators consume unimaginable quantities of corny dogs or hamburgers.
But roots run deep in Texas, and the State Fair hasn’t forgotten its past in agriculture and cattle. Somewhere deep within us there’s supposed to be a pastoral farmer lurking. But since most of us are about as capable of farming as milking a bull, there are delightfully informative displays of farm livestock, milking shows, tractor fixing and other such activities for all ages and knowledge levels (that is, designed for ignorant city folk such as yours truly). And paying tribute to the oxen of today, there is this enormous auto show featuring everything from cars to pick-up trucks that could probably lift the Titanic.
Yet there are times when we don’t want to be lost in the chaos of mega fairs. Contrary to all expectations, Texas also surprises me with delightful small fairs and festivals (albeit the “biggest” small fairs in the country), celebrating local flair, flavours and culture. In these fairs, the atmosphere may be a little more rustic, and we make fools of ourselves throwing surprisingly heavy horseshoes or sportingly wagering pennies on racing armadillos (which by the way, are not reptiles, but ant-eating mammals).
The little town of New Braunfels is a blink-and-you-miss-it stop between San Antonio and Austin. But it suddenly explodes into activity for 10 days in November, when Wurstfest comes to life. New Braunfels was founded in the mid-1800s when several German colonies were established across Texas. Wurstfest celebrates those ancient German roots in true American style by consuming vast quantities of quintessentially German junk food; wurst, sauerkraut and beer.
Inexplicably, this place has become an annual destination for my office. Here, the outfits are from an imaginary Bavaria, there’s plenty of faux German music, and there’s sausage on tacos and sauerkraut on pizza, giving it that Texan twist. Incredibly, all of these get better as the evening wears on and the kegs go empty. In inimitable Texan style, Wurstfest also presents “the world’s largest” beer bottle collection, supposedly containing over 17,000 empty bottles of beer. Even in our smaller fairs we find the “biggest” something. You certainly don’t mess with Texas.
There is something about these fairs and festivals that awakens some distant childhood memories. As a child, one of my favourite weekend activities was to go to the children’s area in Cubbon Park in Bangalore to ride the merry-go-round or giant (Ferris) wheel, trot on a somewhat puny pony and enjoy spicy roast corn cobs and cotton candy. In Texas, we’re spoilt for choice, with everything from the mega state fair to smaller town festivals with their own unique histories, and twists on fried food. For this year’s post-summer entertainment, perhaps I’ll prove to be a prophet when I head out to observe jesters, jugglers and jousts at the Texas Renaissance Festival, where a fantasy medieval European town (the largest in the world?) springs to life. There’s way more to fairs here than plain vanilla Ferris wheels and cotton candy, though there’s still some of that as well. Only, here the cotton candy will be the biggest in the world.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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