Fare is fair

By Paula Johnson

Photo: (l-r) Connie Little, Sandra Carpenter, Paula Johnson, and Cindy Kirkland judge the Deviled Egg Challenge at the Ohio State Fair

I learned a lot at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus this past August. An awful lot. First and foremost, I learned that it’s not a good idea to wear open-toed sandals in the sheep barn. It’s actually a spectacularly bad idea. I discovered this when I was invited to be a judge at several culinary events organized by the Ohio Egg and Poultry Association. I was so excited to attend what would be my very first State Fair ever. There have been many new experiences on this city mouse’s road to becoming a true country mouse, and I was looking forward to adding this one. Aside from my unfortunate choice of footwear, it was a fun and eye-opening day.

Since this was my first, I wanted to know a little about the history of the event. According to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, the first American fair was presented in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1765, and continues to operate today. The fair’s purpose was to broaden agricultural knowledge through competitive exhibitions of livestock and display of farm products. In the U.S., state fairs began in the 19th century. As the U.S. evolved from a predominantly agrarian to an industrial society with more of a service economy focus, modern state fairs have expanded to include carnival rides and games, industrial product displays, auto racing, and entertainment such as musical concerts. Large fairs can admit more than a million visitors over the course of a week or two. The Ohio State Fair is one of the country’s largest with last year’s attendance topping 982,305, the fair’s highest 12-day attendance on record. And that means big bucks. As estimated in a 2011 economic impact study conducted by Saperstein & Associates, the State Fair contributes approximately 68.5 million dollars to the state’s economy.

I wandered the midway, amongst the sights, smells, and sounds, trying to take in the enormity of the event. But I was there to do a job: taste and judge egg and poultry entries; so, off to the newly constructed (and thankfully air-conditioned) Cardinal Hall I went to convene with my fellow judges for what I thought would be a tasty adventure. I was expecting big things. These would be some great Midwestern cooks duking it out to take the top prize (cash!) and bragging rights for their dishes back home. This was going to be some fine cooking! However, things quickly went off the culinary rails with the first event of the day: the Deviled Egg Challenge. I was stunned at how many of the entries used low quality packaged processed ingredients (fake maple syrup, imitation bacon bits, canned taco meat, prepared spice mixes are a few examples). The same was true with other categories, especially the Crock Pot categories of soups and stews. I was really looking forward to trying some down home chicken-and-noodles or some tasty beef stews, but most dishes left much to be desired in terms of originality, creativity, and taste. Bland or salty seemed to be the order of the day with an overwhelming use of canned soups and Cheese Whiz. What was going on here?

There are reasons for the demise of fresh, non-commercially produced food that is the current norm in American cooking today. First, it’s important to note that Americans spend less time than practically any other economically developed country in the world preparing food—shockingly less than 30 minute on average per day. Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, authors of the new book, “A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression” trace a lot of what’s wrong with how we cook to the school lunch program, government subsidized agriculture and food relief, and how it influenced American ideas and tastes. At that time, the focus was on cheap, nutrition-laden food  with taste having little to do with it. As a matter of fact, food was purposefully bland. Spices were considered stimulants that could make people nervous. So, delicious inexpensive foods from immigrants were ignored in favor of a more “American” style of eating. Furthermore, packaged foods in relief boxes were purposefully bland to inspire people to find work to afford better food. As Ziegelman puts it,  “This infatuation that we have now with food that’s fresh, just off the farm, and crisp and sweet, that didn’t really hold much water for Depression-era cooks who were more entranced with modern, frozen foods. That was the miracle food! And canned foods that came in every variety and which, according to the advertisers, were made from better ingredients that were actually fresher than the fresh food that you bought at the grocery store.” I think there’s a clear link with what these food historians are writing about, the food I sampled at the Ohio State Fair, and the demise of cooking in general today in America.

Sally Kuzemchak, food and nutrition blogger and fellow judge put a positive spin on the day, commenting, “I will say from a (relatively) outsider’s perspective that I always figured the fair’s food competitions were for professionals and that my own homemade creations wouldn’t stand a chance. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s for cooks and bakers of all skill levels. After I helped judge the competition, I encouraged my friends who are good cooks and bakers to enter next year.”

Here’s what I can state about this year’s State Fair. While the fare I tasted was often at best only fair, I am hopeful that next year will exceed this year’s entries in both quality and quantity. There’s prize money out there, people, and you’ve got a good shot at winning some if you’ve got a great cookie or casserole! As long as you leave the canned  soup, Cheese Whiz, and off-the-shelf prefab mixes behind, that is. And, I can also state that next year, I will be wearing a cute pair of those barn boots I noticed everyone else wearing. Then, I’ll be the one laughing at the lady in the bathroom washing her toes off.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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