As August comes along, I start thinking about what I want to enter in the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair exhibits. My latent competitive streak starts scheming about how to win a blue ribbon. A blue ribbon from the fair exhibit hall confirms you’re the best. You might only be the best in the small world of green bean growers or miniature flower arrangers on Martha’s Vineyard, but a blue ribbon is a blue ribbon. When I won first prize in a craft category a few years ago, in which there were no other competitors, I felt as if I should tamp down my delight. But when I’d tell people about my blue ribbon — honesty compelling me to mention that mine was the only entry in the category — they’d tell me I should still be proud. I’m not sure what for — maybe just for managing to get an entry to the fair at all, given it’s August on the Vineyard.
So many of us have ambitious plans for exhibit hall entries, but as the deadline approaches we wonder how we can possibly find time to gather, finish, or arrange our intended exhibits. The perfect flowers or vegetables that inspired us to enter at the beginning of August are long gone by. However, if we do somehow manage to deliver our hopefuls to the fair by the deadline, then when opening day on Thursday rolls around, our anticipation is like a kid’s on Christmas morning, especially if we are a kid.
We wait for the judges to finally finish judging so the hall can open, and plan to get to the fair as soon as possible. That first day, the flowers are still fresh, and the veggie sculptures haven’t started to sag yet; nor have the cakes and pies, which still look mouthwatering. And until we enter the hall, there is still the unknown as to whether or not we’ve won a prize. We slip into the dim cavern of the great hall, all our senses on alert. Depending on our age and personality, we either rush off to where our entries are likely to be, or meander in that direction, putting off the moment of truth: Did we win a ribbon?
There is a satisfying seriousness with which people enter the fair exhibits. Here are the farmers, for example, at the height of the busy summer season who take time to, say, arrange a wheelbarrow full of fruits and vegetables, or pick out five of the best, most similar-looking beets. There are kids who spend weeks perfecting their shell collections, building a giant dinosaur out of recycled materials, or putting together a group exhibit at camp. To me, this just shows how important the fair competition is, how much it means to win a ribbon, especially a blue one.
For years I wanted to win a blue ribbon in a vegetable category — that seemed like the highest sort of competition that was within my range of possibility. The fair theme arrangement or “mixed flowers from your own garden” category would be sensational to win, but if you’ve ever seen those entries, you know what serious competition there is. I’d love to win a prize in something like the quilting categories, where the entries are amazing works of art. But first I’d have to take up quilting. Then I’d have to do it for 20 or 30 years, and I’m not sure I have that long.
The year I won a blue ribbon for my garlic was the high point of my fair exhibition career. I really felt as if I’d arrived. Even now, thinking about what I want to enter this year, I feel a certain smugness. No matter how I do in this year’s competition, I’ve already won first prize, for my garlic of all things. I’ve only been a serious garlic grower for a few years. Garlic does kind of grow by itself, so I’m not sure how smug I should be.
Why do we enter things in the Ffair? When I asked my daughter, Lily K. Morris, about entering at the fair when she was a kid, she said, “That’s what you do, as a kid in August. It’s part of life.” I liked that answer, and it still feels true for both of us now. Entering the fair makes me feel part of the community, that life is continuing as it should, and I’m a part of it.
Lily and I both agreed, though, we’ve never even thought of entering a baking category. Maybe she learned it from me, but we couldn’t imagine going to all the trouble of baking a pie or cake and not getting to eat it, and seeing it molder away on the shelf. Lily says about the baking competition, “That was another planet.” We still don’t go there.
I sometimes enter categories in which there are usually only a few entries, like nasturtiums, just to up my chances of winning some color of ribbon. I enter some of the flower-arrangement categories, even though I’m pretty sure I won’t win anything. I like to see my flowers on the shelves along with all the others. It makes me feel part of the gardening community. In some years, I find a teacup at the thrift store and have fun experimenting with flowers for the “arrangement in a teacup.” I try to think like a judge, but I haven’t quite figured out what they’re looking for. I’m pretty sure it’s something much more sophisticated than anything I’ve ever created, not necessarily elaborate, but something a little different.
This year, I’m thinking about the “container not originally intended for flowers” exhibit. That’s a fun category, with creative entries consisting of flowers arranged in all sorts of unusual containers like shoes or basketballs. I’ve been looking around my house and yard for an unlikely container. I could mention a few of the odd things I’ve considered, but I don’t want to give the competition any ideas. May the best entry win, but let’s all have some fun!