Photo courtesy of alamedacountyfair.com
There are certain annual events that I always intend to attend, in the abstract; but in the more-or-less-figurative world in which I live, I don’t actually get around to them. The idea exists in the corner of my brain, like a little itch I can’t scratch, until the event goes away and I tuck the idea away until next year. Just such an event is the Alameda County Fair. I cherished an unreasonably rosy memory of a singularly bucolic and enjoyable sojourn to the Los Angeles County Fair, rendered almost antique in retrospect by the fact that the fairgrounds are dotted with permanent food stands with vintage neon signs so choice that they dictate the contents sold therein in perpetuity: I remembered stellar fish and chips and (could it be?) a juicy grilled lamb sandwich consumed mere moments after viewing plump white sheep with big blue ribbons attached to their collars.
This visit grew rosier the further away I got from it. My friend Lisa makes near-annual pilgrimages to that fair, reporting on the constant evolution of deep-fried items served on a stick: first Snickers, then Twinkies, then pickles, then God knows what. A hasty Internet search for “deep-fried food on a stick” instantly yields a top story: deep-fried Coca-Cola, which turns out to be fried Coca-Cola-flavored batter, drizzled with Coca-Cola fountain syrup, topped with whipped cream, cinnamon sugar, and a cherry. This chef d’oeuvre won the creativity honor at last year’s Texas State Fair, not, I hasten to point out, the tasty prize, which went to deep-fried pralines. On a stick.
Anyway this year I got on the stick and went to the Alameda County Fair, taking along my five-year-old nephew Ben, a reliable companion, unlike the many who have said “Yes! Let’s go to the Fair!,” over the years and let the opportunity slip away like sands through the hourglass of our lives. Ben is also my most reliable movie-going companion, which explains why I have seen Evan Almighty, but not Knocked Up. I was reminded of the Fair’s existence (as of this writing, it still has five days left to run, through July 8th) on Sunday, driving past Pleasanton on the way back from a family wedding in Central California.
And on the morrow Ben and I were there, purchasing $25 neon-pink wristbands that promised unlimited rides, instead of fistfuls of tickets, once I read that rides were 3 to 5 tickets each. They say tickets rather than dollars, but dollars are what they are, although you can get 80 tickets for 50 dollars. But Ben went on one 5-ticket ride, the Wave Swinger, the very first ride we encountered as we entered the Carnival section of the Fair, which lifts you on a swing and twirls you high in the air, more than 10 times, by my exhausted count. And several others (the Starship Trooper 3000, which holds you up by centrifugal force; the rollercoaster, with Aunt M in tow; the Fun Slide) many many times each. And several more three or four times each. You do the math.
He was drunk on speed and thrills despite his height-challenged longing for the upside-down rides such as the Zipper, the Fire Ball, and the Crazy Train. There were many more open to him in the Kid’s Park, many of which he dismissed as “too baby,” although I still have a crick in my neck from the jolting, jerky Silver Streak there that I was obliged to accompany him on as the (ir)responsible adult.
If it was up to Ben, we never would have left the carny rides (and the unbelievably expensive games of chance; one pretty young mom told me she remembered when they were three balls or darts for a quarter, but now they’re $5, and it took $10 of my hard-earned cash for Ben to bring home a teddy bear for his mom, though it was a joy to see him pop those balloons with a well-aimed dart). Well, okay, we saw magic shows and a well-kept deer, llama, and wallaby in the Farmyard Follies, and we never found the hip-hop breakdancers; there’s plenty to do that for your $9 admission (kids under five free! Kind of).
I warned him that there were things Aunt M wanted to see, too, so we caught the end of one horse race (“#1 came in last!,” was Ben’s sanguine comment), visited the oddly-configured Livestock pavilion, where you could walk along some stalls, getting good views of goats, say, but not others (the pigs seemed very exclusive. Luckily they were judging pigs in the adjacent ring), and did a fast tour of the quilts, baked goods, and, strangely, place settings, which seem to be big among the 4-H set.
My rosy memories of fish-and-chips and grilled lamb sandwiches evaporated amidst the reality of $4.50 hot dogs, and $5 cotton candy. I sniffed (literally) at gyros, grilled chicken (boneless), quesadillas, and $8 chicken wings. The barbecue stand seemed promising, until I got scared off by the fact that it was the only eatery that took credit cards.
Nowhere did I see the kind of deep-fried treats I yearned for.
Hours later, as we sat eating 4-H chocolate cake and peach-upside-down cake (which in July was made with canned peaches, or perhaps fresh peaches that had been somehow taught to taste canned), the kindly and proud 4-H baker, who told us that he placed each maraschino cherry on the cake AFTER it was baked rather than before, so that every slice would get one, said that deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos were to be had at the Arizona Taters stand (“She’s going to deep-fry Girl Scout peanut butter cookies for me!).
It was only a ten-minute walk away. But we’d been at the Fair for almost an entire eight-hour work day, one that began at noon. Even after a 25-cent foot massage on a vibrating chair (the cheapest treat of the day, which cost $119.08 for the two of us, with virtually nothing to show for it but the teddy bear, the wilting pink wristbands, and a 27-shot disposable camera), it seemed too far and too dear.
We’ll have to wait until next year. We wouldn’t miss it. Perhaps Ben will have grown tall enough for the Himalaya.