Where can you eat a triple bypass, get a 25 cent foot massage, count mullets, see the head of a beautiful girl on the body of an ugly snake, mingle with filthy swine and pick up a novelty license plate emblazoned with the Confederate flag? That would be the New York State Fair in Syracuse, New York, which runs through Labor Day. Most Americans hear the words “New York” and conjure up images of an urban jungle filled with sophisticated people who drink fair trade coffee and don’t own television sets. But New York isn’t all about the Big Apple – it’s a huge state with plenty of rural, pastoral beauty and there’s no better place to get a flavor of the state’s small town charms than the New York State Fair, held every summer since 1841.
I started my fair experience on Wednesday with a freak show. The cavernous fairgrounds are filled with farm animals, every type of fried food imaginable, midway rides and games, psychics, and hordes of people in all shapes and sizes. It’s sensory overload but a tinny voice coming out of a loudspeaker caught our attention.
STOP! WAIT! How could this ever come to be? She has traveled throughout the world telling her strange story of how her body transformed into an ugly snake to thousands of people. See Angel, the snake girl, with the head of a lovely girl on the body of an ugly, scaly, 200-pound snake.
My older son Leo, 5, and I couldn’t resist, so we plunked down $1.50 and headed inside. The “beautiful girl” was a haggard, middle-aged woman whose “story” seemed to consist of nothing more than her maniacal cackling, and we were kicked out after trying to shoot video (see above). But getting ripped off is an important part of any state fair experience, as is sampling all of the incredibly unhealthy food options.
I saw stands selling corn dogs, fried dough, dough nuggets, funnel cakes, and wild hog wings before I finally came upon a stand selling vegetables and thought that perhaps I needed a new prescription. Mushrooms, zucchini and cauliflower? But upon closer inspection, it turned out they were all fried. Phew. And then I came across Jim Hasbrook’s Fried Specialties, a kind of Shangri-La for people unconcerned by clogged arteries.
Jim sells just about anything you can imagine deep-fried: pop tarts, PB & J, lasagna, pizza, jellybeans, cheese curds, and a host of other delicacies.
“Last year we tried selling deep fried butter too,” Hasbrook said. “But it melts too quick and the truth is, it doesn’t taste that good.”
So Hasbrook dropped the deep-fried butter but brought back two other hugely popular specialties – deep-fried snickers wrapped in bacon, and a treat he calls the “triple bypass,” which is PB & J, two Oreos and two chocolate chip cookies, all fried, of course. When I asked Jim and one of his employees, Matt, if they felt bad about serving such decidedly unhealthy treats they were unapologetic.
“It’s no worse than French fries or chicken wings,” said Matt, a rail thin 20-something who said he eats the fried treats all day long. “People put a bad name on fried food because they think it’s so bad for you, but it’s really not because everything gets stuck inside your gut anyways.”
After spending roughly the gross national product of Namibia on rides and games for my two little boys, we almost bit on another freak show – a 29-inch tall woman on display for $1 a peak, billed as a “West Indies Cultural Exhibit.” Instead, we hit some of the farm animal exhibits – cows, sheep, goats, lamas, horses and, my favorite: pigs! In the Dairy Cattle Barn, I got to meet a few farmers, but felt like I needed to keep my voice down, as a host of others that had been up during the night tending to their animals were fast asleep on cots (see photo).
I bumped into Eli Stoltman, from Georgetown, New York, just as he was gently kicking one of his prize swines, trying to rouse him from a nap.
“I’m due to show him in the next round but the little rascal won’t wake up,” he said.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Well, he doesn’t really have a name because he’s going to be eaten,” he said, as the swine rolled back over and went back to sleep.
Visiting a state fair is like getting a snapshot of life in rural, red-state America. The food is plentiful, the people are open, honest and approachable, and you see plenty of not-very politically correct things, like Confederate flag license plates, mullet count boards and Captain Porkin’ T-shirts. Every urbanite should go at least once to see how the other half lives.
On my way out, I paid $3 to let a carnie guess my age.
“Take your sunglasses off,” he commanded.
I did as I was told, and he said, “There we go, I can see your age right there in your eyes.”
And sure enough, he nailed my age, guessing that I was two months older than I actually am. I had been hoping for an ego boost but left with a reminder to lay off the deep-fried snickers wrapped in bacon.
(Photos and videos by Dave Seminara)