The sights and sounds of a fair are like no other, and the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo is like any other. Big whirring, whirling structures with wildly blinking lights. Screams emanating from fast-moving, upside-down cages disguised as seats. Huge stuffed teddy bears, Hello Kitties, or SpongeBob SquarePants wannabes being lugged around by kids often half their size. The voices hawking the odds of you winning such plush booty. The pop, pop, popping of balloons being sacrificed in order to earn the bragging rights of winning those games of skill or luck.
But it really is the smell of the food at fairs that’s most memorable. The sweet enticing fragrances of oncoming summer and memories of childhoods gone by-olfactory recollections that will long linger in the soul. The delicious smells wafting about the entire grounds. The sticky sweetness of the cotton candy and caramel apples. The smokiness of barbecued ribs and tri-tip. Edible earthiness of roasted corn. Sugary/salty crunches of kettle corn. Red-dyed deliciousness of candied apples. The homey honey batter and steamy beefiness of corn dogs. And, a perennial fair favorite, the deep-fried doughy goodness of funnel cakes.
You can have food without a fair, but you simply can’t have a fair without food. Sometimes combining the ingredients of the two makes history. Take for instance, chili: It’s a staple now on recipe index cards in most households, but it was introduced to the country at large at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Two decidedly refreshing treats, the waffle ice cream cone and Dr. Pepper, were both introduced to the general public at the St. Louis 1904 World’s Fair, the same debut for a machine that spun sugar into mouthfuls of light fluff. Known as “Fairy Floss” then, we know it today as the quintessential fair food, cotton candy.
Long before Top Chef, Iron Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, and the other food reality shows, fairs provided food competitions to showcase kitchen talent. These competitions are still one of the most anticipated parts of fairs for hometown foodies and domestic divas. Don’t let the down-home feeling fool you-many mild-tempered folks let their inner Martha Stewart go to town for these competitive endeavors. The quest for the blue ribbon at these competitions is fierce.
The competitive opportunities at the recent Santa Barbara Fair & Expo represented a foodie’s delight. The diverse classes, even within the multitude of divisions, were intriguing. In Preserved Foods, there were competitions for dried foods, jams, jellies, juices, marmalades, and relishes. They even had a competition for homemade canning labels. In Division 402 Fruits alone, there were 15 different classes, ranging from Apples to Figs and Pears. The Baked Goods Division ran the gamut including biscuits and rolls, hand-kneaded breads, cupcakes, decorated cakes, pies, and sponge cakes. The Beer & Wine Divisions offered some unusual entries-ever heard of Vegetable Wine?
There were, of course, competitions where the food was judged in front of a live audience. Each person sitting out in the sea of chairs secretly desired to be one of the three judges given the opportunity to nosh and hand out ribbons and prizes; they dreamed of having the power of making someone’s day while sending the rest of the field home with their spatulas packed, grumbling about how they needed to tweak ingredients for next year. Given the ’60s theme of this year’s fair, several categories were chosen to represent that free-flowing, creative period to contrast with the All-American standby. Think Brownies vs. Apple Pie. Both popular with competitors. Both popular with judges. Well, basically, both popular with just about everyone within eyeshot and smell distance. Both providing a wide variety of culinary interpretation and multitudinous caloric intake.
Competitors eyeball each other as they place their offerings up to the food judges. Everyone watches intently how the others display or serve up their dishes, taking note of what type of plate, accoutrement, or additional ingredients are used to pretty up entries. As many a contestant on one of the televised reality foodie shows will attest, plating is important but not everything. And, at the fair, it’s no different. The entries are scored from 1 to 10 in three categories; 25 percent of the total score is for overall presentation, another 25 percent for originality and creativity. But, again, taste rules: It is 50 percent of the total score. It may look good, but it’s got to taste good, too.
There is something very gratifying about bringing home a huge blue rosette for something that you created. Well, that’s what the winners told me anyway. I eased my soul and settled for an indulgent plate of freshly deep-fried funnel cake topped with whipped cream piled mile-high and fresh juicy strawberries, followed with a cotton candy chaser. I’m sugared up and ready to go work on the winning recipe for next year.