I spent a few hours at the Chittenden County Fair this afternoon, home of carousels and fried Oreo cookies. We even heard a rumor of fried butter! I people and livestock-watched, chatted with a maple syrup producer for a while, ate the “healthy”-er food I could find, watched the rides, and took in all the sights and sounds. A fun evening.
I hadn’t been to a county fair for many years since the annual visit with my high school friends to the Sheep and Wool Festival in Maryland. So, a few surprising thoughts from the visit. One is that it was quite the melting pot – a super-diverse-seeming cross-section of this part of Vermont. Lots and lots of middle school and high school age kids, a good number of college age people, tons of families, and plenty of farmers with their animals, and a lot more racial and age diversity overall than I usually see in downtown Burlington. (And did I mention a lot of fried food!)
In that way, I think the county fair phenomenon – as industrial and mass-market as it’s become – harkens back to something older. The Oasis, or Bazaar, or Festival, or Marketplace has existed in cultures around the world for a very, very long time, probably since people had trading relationships between communities. Those places where people from different communities all came together and interacted were very important economically and culturally for the community, and important developmentally for the young people especially. They were also important in the cycle of the year in terms of distributing the harvest and connecting with the season and the products of the land.
And so there’s some common memory in our cultural past that’s attractive about a huge, noisy, exciting mixing bowl of people with food and music and animals and commerce thrown in. There’s competition, magic/mystery, thrill-seeking, courtship, and so on. I do think it’s fair to say that the modern version is a “toxic mimic” in some important ways, especially health-wise given the nature of the food (I wonder, for example, if the county loses more money in the long run on medical costs from heart disease, etc. than it makes from these events). But I also think it’s remembering something ancient and important in our blueprint, and on some subconscious level it’s so compelling and exciting for that reason.