Friday, August 22, 2008
"You go to the fair?" I get that a lot. If you were crazy enough to want to go back after you were a kid, it was likely that the shank-tastic ‘90's shooed you away for good. It's noisy, gritty, hot, mediocre, full of low-lives… and I love it. I even get a little restless lying in wait for the first days of October, so a few years ago, I got risky and drove out to the sticks to participate in a little something before the Big Fresno Fair... a little ditty in Caruthers.
Like pre-drinking before a big night out, I'm now convinced this is better than the real deal. Caruthers is known for two things: 1. it is the largest free admission (yes, you heard me) fair in the world. And 2. the freakin' food. This is not the place to get your foot-long corndog or deep-fried Oreo cookie. No, no, this is all down-home. Little church ladies, junior leaguers, elementary teachers, and the occasional blue-plate-special-fry-cook; carnies need not apply.
The gates open to a line of tic-tac white booths dotted with cardboard signs for (among others) Portuguese bean bowls, teriyaki, ribs, Polish sausage, NYC chicken sandwiches, Indian tacos, French fries, lasagna and the Templo Sinai Mexican dinner plate. It's all the real deal.
I cannot escape the hot dip turkey sandwich. Turkey in September is like sex in junior high... a little early but still so damn good. For a moment, that distinctive tug of the holidays takes hold of your tongue and suddenly there is a chill in the air and a hint of cloves on the horizon... but I digress. Pulled from the depths of a crock-pot line-up, they serve it up simple: slopped down in its own juice, stacked like wet blond haystack on top a chewy hoagie roll. You can go there with a little mayo or pepper, but really, it's good on its own.
Then on to The Saviors Lutheran abelskivers. Thank God for the little pious ladies who tend to these perfect balls of fluffy dough, half fritter, half eggy-pancake, slathered in your choice of powder sugar, granulated sugar, or syrup. Blessed be.
And there are Frenchie's pies, where you'll have a hard time choosing between mincemeat, berry, apple, pecan, butterscotch, pumpkin, lemon, etc. I feel like I've got a fast track to the blue ribbon judging panel and there before me is the year’s best work ripe for my criticism.
And there is the Muslim fish fry shack where I went for a catfish strip delicately ribboned on a bamboo skewer, breaded and fried. It was like an earthy tab of butter that tipped its hat to the underbelly of the fish world. Honestly, the best thing I ate all day.
And finally, for the purists, there is one, and only one, booth set in ping-pong lights where you can get your caramel apple and cotton candy spun pink to carnival standards. All around you'll find a few cows and sows, wilting flower arrangements, seed art, freakish vegetables, shammies, and the other stuff that makes a fair tick. It's just enough.
At dusk the air hums with chatterbox church ladies and the ping of carnival whirligigs. Evening gnats on a gentle commute glow pink with the tint of the Farris wheel lights and the faint smell of animal life lifts above the last fried fritters. For a moment or two, I am home. A bittersweet memory of what life in this little brown town could be.