It was a hot and sticky Rehoboth evening. You know the kind, when you drink your gin real fast prior to the ice melting and before you know it you’re stewed and bad ideas sound like good ones.
That’s how I wound up one Saturday afternoon at the Delaware State Fair.
I’ve witnessed synchronized cowboy dancing at the Texas State Fair and I’ve ridden on a school bus with drag queens to the Monroe County Fair, just outside of Key West. So the notion of checking out the 87th annual State Fair was somewhat intriguing.
I mean, who wouldn’t appreciate studly farm boys showing off their prize cocks and heifers? And speaking of heifers, I could only hope there’d be lots of ‘em, squeezed into hot pink tube tops and short shorts and sporting straw cowboy hats. I wanted to buy some peaches, tomatoes, and local hand crafted cheeses. Perhaps I’d even catch sight of a watermelon grown big around as a white wall tire. Oh, and the human rooster crowing contest was a must-see. Yes indeed, I had high expectations for a cornucopia of bounty from the Delaware countryside.
Peaches were high on my State Fair agenda. That might sound odd to you, but please remember that I am a Southerner, and as such eat them on ice cream and cereal, in salads and salsas, with peanut butter sandwiches, and even by themselves. I find the scent of an overripe peach most beguiling, though the fruit flies are annoying.
I was excited that there’d be blue ribbons awarded for the best basket of peaches, best jar of peach preserves, and even for a peach dessert bake off. Visons of wizened country women – gingham gladiators – battling for supremacy in the peach cobbler division danced in my head.
A lot of people aren’t aware that Delaware was once known for its peach producing prowess. Delaware led the nation from 1840 until the close of the 19th century. The peach is mentioned in the state song and the peach blossom was designated the state flower in 1895. Delaware even named its 1893 Atlantic League baseball team after the fruit – The Wilmington Peaches.
However, a blight called the “peach yellows” brought disaster and devastated most of the state’s orchards. The industry collapsed and moved south. There are only a few large peach orchards left in the state. Most peaches are grown in small family farms.
White peaches, like state fairs, are a classic summertime delicacy. I was anticipating discovering some heirloom varieties at the Fair. Or, at the very least, I could pick up a bushel of fresh picked ones for a new white peach sangria recipe I wanted to try.
Well, it didn’t take long to discover that my downstate fantasies were, in fact, nothing more than gin-inspired hallucinations. I’d hoped for Rodgers and Hammerstein and instead got Billy Ray Cyrus.
Nobody was selling agricultural goods at the State Fair, just sunglasses, t-shirts, funnel cakes, pretzels, and pizza – Boardwalk fare! The closest thing to produce for sale was a corn dog. One stand advertised “chicken on a stick,” which sounded intriguing. But, it was merely a couple of dried-out chicken tenders on a skewer, not a small rotisserie bird impaled on a kabob, as I had hoped. The Mennonites were selling home-cooked food, but all the Jesus banners kept me at bay.
I didn’t see one single farm boy in tight Wranglers and boots, chewing on hay and grooming his goat. But, there were plenty of scrawny Eminem wannabes in baggy jeans, wife beater tank tops, gold chains, and baseball caps cruising for girls. In fact, the livestock pens weren’t attracting crowds at all, unlike the recreational vehicle display…
More disturbing, however, was a booth trumpeting the world’s smallest woman, just 24 inches tall. For one dollar you could observer her in her natural setting — the living room. I’m not kidding. This poor old Jamaican woman was propped up in a La-Z-Boy watching the Home Shopping Channel on TV. She looked to be all head and feet. For an extra dollar she’d stand up. One more dollar and you could snap a photo.
One dollar also gained you entry to the bear cave, which was nothing more than a glass-enclosed pen housing a couple of mangy little black and brown bears. In a nearby outdoor pen, a tired old elephant walked round and round and round with fat screaming teenagers strapped to her back. I prayed for a rampage, and I wondered how the hell Governor Ruth Ann Minner can allow these sorts of noveau freak shows but not permit beer sales on the Fair grounds?
After two hours, I wanted to quit and head back to Rehoboth. Then I saw it, a big ugly metallic building with a sign reading “Competition Hall.” One last chance for redemption.
Can you believe that a dozen hopefuls from across the state had pursued the blue ribbon for the “best ear of corn on a stick” while only one brave soul chased his dream of winning “best display of five okra in Delaware?” I counted four submissions for “best basket of peaches.” The “best cabbage” contest, however, attracted a lot of entries, including one from an 82 year old man. How long do you think he’s been raising and entering his cabbages? There were ribbons for jars of beans and jars of pickles, for green peppers, red peppers, and hot peppers. Some of the champion eggplants were quite lewd. To my great disappointment, the desert bake offs had been held earlier and the cooks had taken their prize winners home. I quickly followed suit and high-tailed it back to Rehoboth.
Someone once said the place where optimism most flourishes is the lunatic asylum. Clearly I must be a little nuts to have trekked all the way to Harrington for this, even on a rainy day. Can I blame it on the gin?