I’m excited and VERY happy to introduce you to my guest blogger, friend and novelist Laura Benedict. Laura and I met in St. Louis many years ago and have fortunately maintained a long-distance friendship via phone and Facetime, chatting regularly about our children and texting questions about how long seafood stock might last in the fridge. She is a lovely, sweet person who can reliably scares me half to death with her wonderfully dark and compelling tales.
Today, Laura turns her eye away from creating havoc in whatever fictional world she’s working in at present to share the sights and flavors of the DuQuoin State Fair. Thank you, Laura!!!
Here in Southern Illinois, the week before Labor Day, we have our very own state fair. Just as the northern two-thirds of Illinois ignores our little part of the world, we completely ignore their state fair. I don’t think I even know where it is. Springfield, maybe? No matter. No one from down here bothers with it.
One of the best things about our little fair–the DuQuoin State Fair–is its size. Unlike most midwestern state agricultural fairs, our state fair is much more like a large county fair in, say, Ohio or Pennsylvania. There’s a real midway–the same company has been there each one of the six years since we moved here–harness racing, a demolition derby, lots of enormous farm equipment, a beer tent, Miss Illinois, talent shows, produce and food judging, an exhibition hall, music (Dwight Yokam and Merle Haggard were here this year) and, of course, farm animals. The barns aren’t big enough to show all the animals at once, so they rotate them. When we attended the first day of the fair, we saw a lot of beef cattle.
I have a tried and true strategy for fair-going. We head out late in the afternoon, have dinner there, let the kids get their fill of the midway, and then we head for the exhibition hall and a look at the animals. (The first year we went, my daughter was a young teenager and could have won $25 just for hopping up on the exhibition stage and trying out hog-calling. There was only one other contestant. But she wouldn’t do it. Now, she’s singing opera in college. Go figure.) We miss the early crowd and are gone just as the nighttime party crowd arrives. Perfect.
On the way out, I usually pick up a peanut-covered caramel apple at the last vendor near the gate, but this year there was a taco-in-a-bag stand instead of one filled with cotton candy and caramel apples. I was disappointed. That’s not to say we didn’t eat well all day. Oh, and when I say “well,” I mean it in the fair food sense of the word. While nearly all of the deliciously naughty food sold at the fair comes courtesy of North American agriculture: corn, pork, beef, sugar, wheat, milk, seafood, rice, and soy, there should be a sign over the main gate that says “Abandon Ye All Hope of Eating Healthy Here.” Does anyone ever go to a fair planning to stick to their diet, get their daily fiber or, ironically enough, eat strictly local? Probably not. But it’s The State Fair, and it only happens once a year.
If you want fruit, there’s fresh-squeezed lemonade, from actual lemons. If you want natural, there is…well, 100% natural maybe isn’t a great goal on this occasion. But you can get alligator meat and deep-fried Oreos, though not at the same stand, funnel cakes and kabobs, pizza-on-a-stick (not quite as appetizing as it sounds), and crab Rangoon. Also, turkey legs, pork barbecue, fried shrimp, pizza, steak dinners, hot dogs and corn dogs, made-on-site doughnuts, ice cream (soft serve only, that I could see), bags of peanuts, cotton candy, and kettle corn. Sadly, I didn’t find bacon-anything at the fair this year. I was expecting at least some deep-fried, bacon-wrapped ice cream. Maybe pork rinds count?
Much as I prefer a lot less fat and sodium the other 364 days a year, I can’t imagine the fair without these foods. They go with the noise and lights of the midway, the distant music from the grandstand, the sunburned, happy crowds of kids and grownups. It’s a celebration. Already, I can’t wait until next year.
Laura Benedict is the author of the dark suspense novels Isabella Moon and Devil’s Oven. She’s currently seeking treatment for her habit of covering random meat with cream of mushroom soup when she can’t decide what to make for dinner. You can get to know her better at laurabenedict.com or catch her on Facebook or Twitter.