We take the State Fair of Texas for granted. Every fall it comes around, preceded by a few fluffy TV news pieces and food blogger posts about the latest fried snacks to bubble up from the grease. This year it's fried bubblegum that people are chewing on (it's actually bubble-gum-flavored marshmallow in a fried crust). When Oprah visited in 2009, she chomped down on deep-fried butter. Dr. Oz wept.
The fair is a junk food paradise but that's not all it is. The State Fair of Texas, now in its 125th year, is a living museum of past and present pop culture. Elvis played the Cotton Bowl during the 1956 State Fair. He came back, sort of, in 2005, when an 800-pound butter sculpture of him was supposed to go on display. It collapsed under its own weight just before opening day. Perhaps they should've deep-fried him.
The Jonas Brothers performed at the fair four years ago, drawing such a huge crowd they had to be choppered in and out of the fairgrounds.
There's no better place to people-watch than the fair. I once saw a family of four - mom, dad, young son and toddler-in-stroller - taking turns gnawing on a single giant turkey leg. Take a bite and pass it on. It doesn't get better than that.
I love the fair. Go every year, often more than once. It's one thing about Dallas life that hasn't really changed that much since I was a kid and used the "fair day" bus pass to get there with my pals from Stonewall Jackson Elementary. We went by ourselves from about age 10 on, with five bucks in our pockets that would last us all day.
Other than the prices - some of those fried items will now eat up that $5 -- there are things at the State Fair that look, taste and sound the same as they did decades ago.
Like the craft and food contests. There are 1100 categories now for food, needlework, photography, art and collectibles, judged and awarded ribbons and displayed with great care in lighted glass cases in the Creative Arts building next to the Cotton Bowl. Every year I join the lines of fairgoers shuffling slowly by these displays, taking in the zigzag afghans, patchwork quilts, tatted doilies and needlepoint pictures that dedicated crafters have spent hundreds of hours on. It costs $4 an item to enter a craft item. The prize, if you're lucky, is a blue, red, yellow or white ribbon. And bragging rights.
There's a wall of ribbon-winning jams and jellies. People still make jams and jellies and "piccalilli" from scratch and deliver them to a panel of judges just like on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show (if you recall, Aunt Bea's pickles were deemed "kerosene cucumbers" and she lost). Throughout the fair they hold cooking contests you can sit and watch as judges taste pies, cakes and casseroles. It's not just little-old-lady-land. Entrants this year include lots of younger folk, inspired perhaps by TV's current wave of chef and cooking shows.
Over in the livestock pens, freckle-faced 4-H kids, looking like boys and girls from Rockwell paintings, scuff along in muddy boots, overalls and checked shirts as they prep their cattle, pigs, goats and sheep for judging. Toward the end of the fair there are livestock auctions, with beef on the hoof going for thousands of dollars to outfits whose names are stamped on packages of breakfast sausages. I've seen kids cry their eyes out as the cow they raised from birth was auctioned off. It always feels to me that the cow is pretty sad, too.
You can wander along rows of prize-winning rabbits and chickens in the small livestock pens. They wash and blow-dry the bunnies before their big day. There used to be games at the fair where you could play tic-tac-toe against chickens. The chickens always won.
My brother Robert Liner has performed his "Spirit of the Horse" exhibition at the fair for the past 15 years. His shows are free and I've seen 500 people jam into the bleachers or stand five deep at the fence to watch him work with kicking mustangs and unruly Arabians. In about 20 minutes he'll have them saddled and begging to be ridden, all without the use of whips or bits. I've heard bystanders say they think the horses are trained to act up and then calm down. Nope, Robert is just one of those horse whisperer guys. He knows how to communicate with animals without hurting them.
There are Frisbee-catching dogs at the fair sometimes. One year a guy brought his "Flying Housecats from the piers of Key West, Florida," to perform acrobatic feats. The State Fair still puts on free exotic bird shows and pig races. In the 1930s there was a horse racing track in the northeast corner of the fairgrounds.
Freak shows disappeared long ago, but I remember when the State Fair had them. As a kid, I once paid a quarter to see the "alligator man" in the freak show row at the back of the midway by the old wooden roller coaster. Inside a small tent, he was sitting in a chair, shirtless, smoking a cigarette. He had a nasty skin condition but looked nothing like an alligator. You had to pay another quarter to photograph him with your Kodak Instamatic. I'm sorry now I didn't take his picture. On the midway these days there's the "world's biggest alligator" on display in a trailer near the Texas Star Ferris wheel. I didn't pay to see it and didn't see many other people interested either.
The State Fair and Dallas Exposition of 1890 sounds like it was a biggie, with a new ride involving swings called the Razzle Dazzle. Fairgoers could walk through a "Japanese village." A phrenologist named Dr. Windsor displayed his vast collection of skulls. (The State Fair's web site has a dandy timeline.)
When I was in the second grade, a popular exhibit at the fair that year was a demonstration of "direct distance dialing." Before that, you could only make long distance calls by going through an operator - human, not computerized. Home phones were heavy black things attached to the wall by fabric-wrapped cords. If you called somebody and they weren't home, nobody answered and they never knew you'd tried.
Marveling at new inventions has always been part of the State Fair. In the 1890s you could have seen some of the first telephones in use, then wandered over to an arena to watch 100 Comanches perform a war dance. At this year's fair there are Irish dancers, belly dancers, dancing waters and a Chinese acrobatic troupe, all free for the price of admission. The dancing Jets and Sharks of the Broadway tour of West Side Story is at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
From one of the distant parking lots on the east side of the fairgrounds all the way to front gates and around the midway, it's a good three-mile walk. Add a meander through the automobile building, by the boats and tractors, the food and fiber displays, the booths selling hot tubs, foot-massage machines, magic crystals and Ginsu knives and you can add another couple of miles to the hike. It's the State Fair as souk, with hawkers begging for your attention as they whack up heads of cabbage and sell you on the notion of slicing tomatoes so tissue-thin just one tomato will last a week.
And if you come back by the Creative Arts building, pop in and look for a turquoise knitted and cross-stitched purse with a third-place ribbon on it. I made it. It's the first thing I've ever entered at the State Fair. Next year I'm going for the blue.
The State Fair of Texas continues through October 23. Admission is $16 for adults, $12 for seniors (60 and over) and kids (ages 3 up to 48" in height). But discounts abound so you don't have to pay full price.