An unexpected treasure showed up in my mail this past month: the “Premium List & General Rules” for submission to the Kentucky State Fair. I had forgotten that last year after a heart-filling day of browsing everything from green beans to hay bales I signed my name on the list for possible future participants. Flipping through the 355 pages of rules governing entries like “New Quilt from Old,” I dreamed of someday having a ribbon winning entry of my own.
I imagine I’m preaching to the Food Connection choir when I confess a long-standing love of county and state fairs. I grew up in a community where at least a third of my classmates were absent from class the week of our county fair because they were showing animals. I’d go for the rides (how on earth did I ever think the ‘zipper’ was a good time?) but find myself lingering in the barns.
I envied the clear purpose and pride of the 4-H kids standing in their stalls. Everyone cleaned up and dressed in their country best, even (and especially) the livestock. Vegetables and home-baked pies lovingly displayed on judging tables, and that unique sense of pride you feel for a stranger when you see a blue ribbon awarded to their efforts.
A Taste of Place
As an adult, my favorite fairs are still in small counties, mostly because they offer a glimpse into the life of that place and it’s farming community. I’ve watched a family friend compete in a lawn-tractor pull (don’t laugh, it was serious), learned about the ties between pigeon breeding and immigrant communities, and even participated in a cross-cut saw competition (a story for another day).
Forget the ludicrous deep-fried butter school of fair food – that’s stuff for city slickers – there are real culinary gems to be found if you know where to look. The first time I ever tasted concord grape pie was from a Mennonite food vendor at a Southern Ohio county fair, and it fundamentally changed my pie world-view. If you’ve ever visited the Bluegrass fair here in Lexington, while the traditional fair trappings are somewhat slim, there is an entire section dedicated Hispanic food vendors and music acts that is an entire fair onto itself. I had a mushroom pupusa there that I still dream about, and for this granddaughter of Polish immigrants, I can never get enough Tuba music.
What I appreciate most about fairs is the opportunity they provide to show-off together. I love that people all across a region put their time in energy into raising or building or crafting something and put it on display to say “I’m proud of this.” The time of the judges and the attention of the fairgoers serves to say “We’re proud of you.”
Instead of looking outside of the state or community for excellence or inspiration, a fair reminds us that we can also look to the talent and passion that is everywhere around us. The people showing their goats aren’t out for corporate sponsorship. While it’s unlikely that person who takes home the blue-ribbon for their zucchini bread will end up with a TV network deal, I’d imagine you can find one of their recipes in a church cookbook. It’s enough to be here in this place and celebrate each other.
Year of Kentucky Foodways
Which brings me to our theme for this year at The Food Connection. While in year’s past we’ve partnered with the College of Arts & Sciences “Passport to the World” program, this year we’re going to focus our attention on the past, present and future of Kentucky foodways.
Exploring new local food territory, we’re helping organize the Southeastern Grain Gathering in September which bring together farmers, bakers, brewers, millers, maltsters, and distillers from across the region and the nation to ‘geek-out’ on locally grown grains and their incredible flavors.
We kicked off our culinary programming with our first “Cook with a Farmer” class with the Waterstrat family of Sustainable Harvest Farm, and we look forward to offering more in this series. We’ve also got an exciting schedule of classes on quintessentially Kentucky foods and their local champions; if you’ve never cooked with Sorghum this will be the year you learn!
And as always, our First Friday Breakfasts will highlight inspiring and innovative leaders working in our state’s local food system. Keep your eyes peeled for our newsletters and Facebook announcements to make sure you don’t miss out. It’s an exciting year and a full one. I look forward to seeing old and new faces while celebrating and learning more about this place I’m proud to call him. I hope you’ll join us.