Text and photos by Sol Weiner
At the North Carolina State Fair, a 100-pound watermelon is not just a 100-pound watermelon, nor is the first-prize pumpkin pie just a dessert. Like The Treachery of Images by René Magritte, which famously declared “This is not a pipe” below an image of that very object, food on display is a representation of something else, something bigger. After all, if you can’t actually eat the perfect cast-iron pan of cornbread, is it really food anymore?
Food—its propagation, processing, and consumption—has always held center stage at state fairs. Between livestock pageants and 4-H presentations, cookoffs and kitchen classes, state fairs have been one of the most important venues for celebrating advances in agriculture and food technology. North Carolina is no different, and is in fact one of the largest state fairs in the country. And just as our technology and how we do and don’t use it says something about our values, so do the creative ways that we have invented to showcase and celebrate them.
The State Fair is a lens through which we can see how agriculture and food processing have grown or regressed through the years. Some of the most exciting technology promising to increase productivity appeared first at state fairs. Particularly in the early and mid-20th century, agricultural reformers and innovators were obsessed with the science of food. Dairy farming, for example, grew leaps and bounds in terms of efficiency and potential output. Thanks to advancements in cold storage, it also became a more economically viable profession as the country continued to urbanize and industrialize.
New advancements in food technology are still incredibly important to anybody who might enter into a cooking or growing competition, particularly in crop yields, pest resistance, food safety, and extending shelf-life. And yet, the fair is not the hub of innovation that it once was. Now, gardeners, farmers, and cooks can find mostly anything they might need to know from the internet or the library. The Fair is still there to showcase the technology and provide camaraderie amongst people who grow, harvest, and prepare, but it does not appear to be the primary source for introducing new tools and new ideas.
Whether the technology is cutting-edge or old hat, I see more than a trade show when I go to the fair. Although that history is still infused in everything there, when I see display cases full of every kind of food item, I see thousands of small affirmations of the power of food to reflect who we are back to us. A crusty round loaf of bread with a blue first-place ribbon tells me that preservation isn’t everything—even with the modern technology of breadmakers and active dry yeast, something made at home is still intrinsically special. It tells us that food is something we can celebrate.
Cases of preserves tell us that canning fruits and vegetables is a skill that, far from being dead, has actually seen an enormous revival in recent years. Sundrop pound-cakes next to pralines show us how regional cooking and baking styles have evolved with foodways from other places. Competitions specifically for peanuts, pecans, apples, and sweet potatoes tell us not only how important those crops are for North Carolina’s economy but also for generations of cooks who have made them central to their meals.
What does your favorite part of the fair say to you?