September 27, 2011

The Big E: A New England Institution

Come and hang with the alpacas!
(or the cows, goats, pigs, chickens, llamas, sheep ...)
The Big E is one of those must-do's for any New Englander. Haven’t been? 

My guest blogger this week is the Super Awesome Dr. Christine Buckley - my friend, former coworker, and own personal restaurant advisor (see her wise Paul's Pasta Shop recommendation here). She was so kind as to brave fried Oreos, farm animals, and, well, foot massagers (read on) for some serious investigative reporting, so that she could tell you exactly why you need to make your way there this weekend. Many thanks, Christine! 

The Big E is a New England institution so great that it doesn’t even need a name anymore – just a letter. 

Begun in 1968, the Eastern States Exposition is the official state fair for the six New England states, and touts itself as the sixth largest agricultural fair in the country. Most New Englanders know all about the madness that is the Big E. But for those of you who live in a box, here’s a quick description:

The event is held on the fairgrounds – aptly named after the event itself – in West Springfield, Mass., for three weeks in late September and early October every year.

Livestock, farm products, crafts, local history displays, parades, carnival rides, games, shopping, and of course food, food, and more food are among the attractions. You might, if you wanted to be trite, say there’s something for everyone at the Big E. J

I attended my second Big E this past weekend. But in fact it was something of a newbie experience, since I last attended nine years ago, and either I’ve changed a lot since my college years (probably true) or the Big E has changed a lot (also probably true.) Ironically and happily, I attended with the same people I had gone with all those years ago. Back then all the concerts were free, even Britney Spears. (We saw The Black Crowes and Styx. Awesome.)

One could write forever about the incredible amounts of sheer…stuff at the Big E. But three things stood out for me.
Ogle the state buildings, each of which features
the culinary and cultural highlights of their namesake states.

1. The State Houses. Officially known as the Avenue of States, this was my favorite part of the fair. The fairgrounds boast a row of buildings that are small replicas of the state houses of each New England state (CT, MA, VT, NH, RI, ME). Each is absolutely beautiful, and I spent about 15 minutes just staring at the beautiful Massachusetts state house.

Each house is filled with booths dedicated to things associated with that state. Not only does it give a quick and lively snapshot into local traditions, but it also shows each state’s personality. Maine has its lobster rolls, baked potatoes, and rugged boots; Massachusetts has its crab cakes and wetlands information; Vermont has Ben & Jerry’s, etc.

In the Connecticut house, one can find a huge Lego play area (a real fave for the 8-and-under crowd), a Pez booth with every collectible Pez dispenser you could think of, and a J. Foster ice cream stand. But what most impressed me was a booth full of books by Connecticut authors, sponsored by the Connecticut Authors and Publishers association. Call me a hopeless academic, but I heard more than one person on their way to the ice cream stand stop and look, then saying something like, “Wow, I didn’t realize we had so many authors.”  And that made me smile. Good on ya, CT, for being literary.

Come on, it doesn't get much cuter.
2. The livestock. Despite New England having a rich history of farming, few of us actually see live farm animals in the flesh anymore. So I really enjoyed hanging out in the Mallary Complex, watching cows and sheep paraded into rings and judged for their worthiness. Even the yearling cows we saw are just so striking in size and stature. And as often as not, they’re being led around the ring by a 14-year-old, a fraction of their size. Totally impressive.

You can also walk through the rest of the complex and see a cow-milking demonstration, sheep shearing, Clydesdale and llama grooming, and chick hatching. Watching a newly hatched chick trying to shake the last remnants of eggshell off his butt was truly the highlight of my day. I came away from the livestock arena refreshed, somehow, and happier.

3. The food (sort of). I’m not quite sure when in the history of fairs it became “the thing” to find the weirdest food you could think of, throw it on a stick, and fry it. Some people religiously attend the Big E simply to gorge on the plethora of fried things, from the tasty-sounding to the just gross. Fried oreos? Might be tasty. Fried butter? Seriously disgusting.

Mind you, the only fried thing I actually ate was fried vegetables with ranch sauce, and they were delicious. So I guess I shouldn’t comment on the tastiness/grossness spectrum of most of the foods. But I’m just not sure how the Craz-E Burger that everyone raves about (a bacon cheeseburger with glazed donuts instead of buns) could really be that delicious. One of my friends had one and oohed with ecstasy; I was content to watch her in awe.

Christine, enjoying the heck out of her 25 cents.
My take on the fair food is that it can be fun to choose one bizarre thing to try, whether it be the 2-foot corn dog, maybe, or the fried pickles. That’s probably good enough. Because on a hot muggy Saturday, with 100,000 people swarming around you and the sticky smell of fried food hanging in the air, after awhile those things can start to seem really nauseating.

Last But Not Least
There’s just one more thing that I must mention. There are these wicked awesome foot-massage chairs situated near the Better Living Center. For a mere 25 cents you sit in what seems to be a cast-off roller-coaster chair, put your feet on a worn-down piece of hard metal, and hold on as you receive the most intense vibrations you’ve ever experienced.  And after a full day of walking around on pavement, it is such sweet satisfaction on your soles. I did it twice.

So, go to the Big E. The fair runs until this Sunday, Oct. 2, from 10 a.m.-10 p.m., $15 for a ticket at the door. Go with a group, your family, or your friends, and try to go early – the $10 public parking was full by 1 p.m. Take in the sights and sounds, and feel like a New Englander while you do. Because this is a tradition that needs to be experienced to be believed.

(Big E tickets are $15 for adults; $10 for kids 6-12 years old; and free for kids 5 and under.)

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