Good Taste: Fantastic fair food

Good Taste: Fantastic fair food

Elijah Dunn-Feiner prepares to tackle a root beer float in 2012. — Susan Safford

Ninety percent of the time I make really healthy choices. I eat right and I exercise. Most days of the year I spend in the gym, trying to squat or pull up more than my body weight. But then —  three glorious days of the year — I spend trying to eat more than my body weight. The first is Thanksgiving. The second is Christmas. The third is whichever day I go to the Ag Fair.

Julien Sapirstein munches on popcorn in 2011.
Julien Sapirstein munches on popcorn in 2011.

At this point in my life, I’m over stuffed animals, and I understand carnival games are money-sucking scams. I still hate clowns. But I’ll never be over Fair food.

Let me start by saying the Martha’s Vineyard Ag Fair is one of the nicest fairs on earth. I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t even summer here as a kid. But back on the New Hampshire border where I’m from, we had our own version of a county fair. It’s actually gotten a lot nicer in recent years, but it used to be the kind of place where the people belonged in barns more than the animals did. Still, I loved it, because I got to have fried dough and lemonade for dinner, and even though it meant cutting sticky sugar out of my hair for weeks, my mom would let me try to eat a whole candy apple on my own.

Now, on the Vineyard, I attend the Ag Fair with several friends. Within minutes of arriving we all lose each other, because everyone scatters immediately to their favorite food stand. When we find each other again, we swap bites, then break for round two.

I don’t need to wax scientific to tell you how strongly food and memory are related. We remember food smells best, and our olfactory bulb is connected to the part of our brain that registers emotion.

I thought I’d ask a few Islanders on Facebook about their favorite Fair food. It turned out I was asking them about their favorite Fair memories.

“Definitely the fried dough,” said Cody Chandler of Edgartown. “It’s our family tradition.” Claire Lindsey of Oak Bluffs is a fan of Football Tempura “mostly for nostalgia’s sake.” Dick Iacovello of Vineyard Haven likes the corndogs because he has fond memories of visiting with the guy who sells them.

My friends in the office confirmed my suspicions. “Root beer floats,” said Nicole Jackson, our graphic designer. “It reminds me of being a kid.” Eleni Roriz, our Calendar editor, shares my fondness for the strawberry shortcake stand. “I know it’s lame, but it’s something I’ve gotten every year since I was little,” she said.

Abigail Wilkinson enjoys cotton candy at the 2009 fair.
Abigail Wilkinson enjoys cotton candy at the 2009 fair.

Food at the Fair haven’t changed much. Corn on the cob and West Tisbury Firemen’s burgers have been around since anyone can remember, and newer ventures like Local Smoke’s pulled chicken and pork, and Floaters root beer floats were natural fits to the world of carnival food: the same cotton candy based meals that grace all fairs everywhere.

There’s something of an American tradition to it, and I like to think it’s more than a culture of obesity trying to eat as much sugar as possible. My parents took me to the fair and let me eat caramel apples, because a long time ago their parents took them to a fair and let them eat caramel apples. It was for the same reason we pass down our grandmother’s apple pie recipes through the generations, and bake them on the holidays.

One day, maybe my friends and I will take our own kids to the Ag Fair, and I like to think the strawberry shortcake lady will still be there. But we’re not quite ready to let go of our own childhoods yet. I still get an awful lot of caramel apple in my hair.