Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Remembering the State Fair of Texas

A couple weeks ago, we visited the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, Texas. The three week event offers a small plethora of indulgences from over-sized carnival foods, gripping thrill rides, multiple performance stages, and expansive museums and exhibition halls. Under the towering gaze of the 52 foot cowboy statue, Big Tex, and the largest Farris wheel in North American, the State Fair of Texas proudly exemplifies the phrase, ‘Everything is bigger in Texas.’

There he stood and told me, 'Howdy' for the last time.

And bigger isn’t always better. On this blog, I’ve tried to write a post every other week describing the events of my time off work to preserve my memories and reiterate how I value my time and experiences. And even though I had a great time at the State Fair of Texas, my original attempts to write a blog post about the fair sounded petty and slightly pessimistic. I don’t want to sugar coat my experiences in an attempt to make my mid-twenties sound rosy and perfect, but at the same time, I don’t want to hold any grudges. I don’t want to flaunt my experiences and then appear ungrateful for the opportunity to experience them, and I don’t want it to sound like I thought it was a waste of time. Instead of posting a somewhat forced and trivial rant about all of the fair’s faults, I took a week to question why I took the event’s shortcomings so personally. And I realized that unlike most local events that I’ve annually attended and often missed during my college years, the State Fair of Texas didn’t grow-up with me. When I look back on fond memories at the fair, they’re perceived through the eyes of a child; they’re casually strolling near the lagoon in the early autumns’ heat or letting my imagination loose through the nature and science museum. Now that I’m an adult (and they started charging separate admission fees for each museum), it’s different. I’m not going to pretend that it was better than expected or it’s been improved since I last attended the event, but it’s worth noting, even it’s just buried somewhere in my blog.
It was slightly cold with a cloudy overcast throughout the day, and we after walked through the entrance gates, we were greeted into the main plaza of the fairgrounds by Big Tex. Due to the weather, it seemed slow for the weekend, but from the very start, Big Tex never lost his fanfare with dozens of people taking pictures with him at any given time. And even with his massive ten gallon hat and flag strutted long sleeve shirt, I remembered him being bigger. I mentioned it to my dad, and he suggested that Big Tex looked taller because I used to smaller. Maybe it was true, but it was chilly so we ventured through the one of the exhibition halls. Located on either sides of the park were two exhibition halls with a wide variety of businesses and serves; one building was a standard convention hall and the other one was converted from a large basketball stadium. Unlike the dozens of clothing and kitchenware booths impractically scattered throughout the buildings, both exhibition halls featured display beds from the Mattress Firm right in front of their entrances. The beds appeared to be a hit with several people casually lying on the display models, some while talking to spouses while others kept their hands crossed with their eyes shut. I don’t know if they attracted any customers, but I liked it. And I suggest that every major event should have display beds to rest on (excluding people with lice; I’m sure you understand). There’s something to be said about the familiar booths, the ones that you’ve come to expect at every fair like the hot tube displays, kitchenware demonstrations, and homemade fudge booth; they’re so consistent, usually in the same spot with the same servers every year. There were electronic grand pianos that any child from the audience could play, handmade grandfather clocks no one dared to touch, and mounds of skinned cow hides that kids delicately brushed with their palms. And even though they attracted less people, I still enjoyed the novelty booths like one that sold 3D toilet seat covers and a candy shop-like booth that served several trays of handmade, freshly baked dog treats. There was at least one tent solely devoted to smaller businesses with ethnic crafts, jewelry, and hand stitched clothing. And it reminded me that it matters how we spend our money. It’s easy to dismiss buying something that we don’t need as trivially indulgences, but when we buy something, we’re supporting their cause and providing a demand for their business.

 As we walked around, I noticed how resentful the ice cream sellers 
appeared at the cold weather. It was slightly funny and depressing.

It was a little past lunchtime so we followed the crisp aromas and crowds of people through the flow of food booths surrounding the Cotton Bowl Football Stadium. It’s kind of a big deal. Per tradition, annual awards were given for the best and the most creative fried delicacies, and the fair has even appointed itself the fried food capital of the Texas. It’s on their website; they seem rather proud of it. To many of its visitors, this is the fair’s main attraction. And to be fair, there aren’t a lot of places where you can purchase deep fried beer, cheese cake, and cookie dough within walking distance. And on a day-to-day basis, that’s probably a good thing. This year the judges awarded deep fried jambalaya as the best tasting fried food and fried bacon cinnamon rolls as the most creative. Personally, we’re traditionalist, and I had a foot long corndog while my dad had fried shrimp with fries. As my dad purchased the corndog, my sister called and mentioned that the history channel had a segment on corndogs where they claimed that the Texas State Fair had one of the first and best corn dogs in the nation. And to be frank, I concur. The deep fried cornmeal remained crisp and impossibly moist from the soft and juicy hotdog, and it was something to both cherish and indulge. In a small nook of the fairgrounds, there was a wine and beer tasting area devoted to local vineyards and breweries across the state. In contrast with the fair’s larger than life affairs, the small plaza was simple and elegant with its patio tables, soothing music, and ever flowing water fountain, and you could tell this was the place where adults retreated after letting the kids run wild.

Afterwards, we stopped inside a building lined with small metal cages. At any fair, rooms with small metal cages usually contain chickens or rabbits; loud rooms contain chickens, and quiet rooms contain rabbits. Fortunately, our room was quiet so we perused through aisles of adorable little bunnies. Actually, most of them were large with oversized neck girths and excess skin rolled over in mounds of fur; they were like a cross between a tribble and Jabba the Hutt. Several of them had red and blue ribbons pinned to their cages, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how they were judged, whether it was by coat thickness or their weight in pounds. The building was in conjunction with other rooms and a small arena meant for animal performances. Unfortunately, we missed the dancing dog shows and the pig races didn’t start until the later in the evening. And even though I initially scoffed at the idea of dogs dressed in costumes while jumping through hoops, I was genuinely sad that I missed them.

Because he was slightly overweight and a winner at life.

As we continued to walk around, we stumbled on the last few minutes of Killdare’s set on their rotating performance stage. Based in Dallas, Texas, the Killdares blends their traditional Celtic skills with modern rock n’ roll to seamlessly integrate both genres into something new and refreshing. As their session progressed, more people shuffled from the bustling pathways, and onlookers were encouraged to crowd the stage and clap along with their songs. With each stroke of the fiddle precisely timed with the bass guitar and drums, the band displayed passion usually reserved for concert halls and sold out shows. And by the time the bagpipe chimed in for its solo, you could tell the audience was hooked into something unique and special.

On an earlier blog post, I mentioned that my dad rarely passes the opportunity to eat a turkey leg, and as we past several booths with turkey legs, I thought that this might be one of those occasions. But then we approached a food booth that defied logic and reasoning. On a rotisserie grill the size of a shed’s roof, there were literally hundreds of turkey legs uniformly basking on the heat like a large, well-trained army sweltering in the sun. People literally stopped near the side of the booth just to take pictures, and they had at least two workers running along the sides of the grill collecting buckets full of turkey legs to dispense to waiting customers. And I admire my dad’s commitment to moderating his diet and bettering his health, but at some point in time a turkey slaughter occurred, and we could not let them die in vain. While my dad was purchasing a turkey leg, I felt like eating onion rings. Fortunately, the booth across the turkey leg venue sold dinner sized proportions of side dishes. Between the duo, I swear that they were trying to give someone a heart attack. The second booth served hefty stacks of chili cheese curly fries, rolling pin-like corn dogs, and of course, onion rings the size of donuts. Wedged between the two booths was a picnic area tucked beneath several shady trees. And as I glanced at teenagers and families posing with their oversized carnival foods for impending facebook profile pictures, I couldn’t help but think of how Americans were perceived by the rest of the world. Until you’re in that picnic area, it’s hard to conceive that a nation can be so overweight while a large portion of the world goes hungry. And it’s events like the state fair where we drown those ever present flashes of guilt with gluttony and arrogance, with loud music and distractions, because we want to enjoy ourselves. And the food was delicious.

The largest Bar-B-Q in the world, weighing 27 tons and able to simultaneously 
cook a thousand turkey legs at once. And it’s American.

I had majority of dad’s turkey leg, and for a while, I carried one or two of the giant onion rings that I couldn’t finish eating as we looked through the carnival portion of the fair. I usually attempt to learn from other people’s mistakes, and even though it’s a work of fiction, I didn’t want to recreate the infamous carnival ride scene from ‘The Sandlot.’ Even so, there was a wide variety of rides that offered several different movements from side to side, up and down, and loopty loops. Throughout the crowd, several people carried giant stuffed bears, inflatable hammers, and one or two impossible to win electric guitars from the ring toss booth. It all seemed fun and slightly nauseating, but that may have been the onion rings.

And then I turned away because I felt slightly nauseous.

Eventually, we reached the Fair Park’s longstanding concrete buildings, the Hall of State and the twin Automotive Buildings. Originally built in the 1930’s, the plaza represents the state’s best Art Deco architecture with their clean, elegant lines and simple but bold metal statues. The auto show was conducted inside two exhibition halls divided by a rectangular lawn of water; one building exclusively had American vehicles while the other one had foreign models. We strolled through the masses of brightly colored cars, and I watched teenagers pose for pictures in the driver’s seat while kids pretended to erratically drift in others. For the past eight years, I’ve driven a Chevrolet Aveo, and even at the time, its best feature was its price. And with its condition slowly declining, it’s different to browse through an automotive show as a prospective buyer instead of fanatic daydreamer. I found myself gravitating toward practical hatchbacks with reasonable gas mileage instead of pinstriped sports cars with leather seats. And even though the show lost some of its allure, it offered a wide selection of cars and choices.

[I didn’t take any pictures of auto show because I accidentally 
smeared turkey leg grease on my camera’s lens.]

Next, we walked past the concrete steps and the ethnic dance performers in front of the Hall of State and into the Girl Scout’s 100th Anniversary exhibit. And I’d like to emphasize the importance of clubs and how the associated has shaped the growth and development of females across the nation, but I wasn’t particularly interested. At the door, there were several volunteers greeting visitors and even more volunteers were scattered throughout the three halls readily available to answer and questions or describe key events in the club’s longstanding history. There were vintage shashes with worn colored patches and old camping manuals behind glasses cases, and the main hall looked impressive with a massive Girl Scout emblem projected onto the back wall behind several iterations of Girl Scout uniforms. But at the same time, the exhibit just felt like a giant recruiting office for parents and their little girls, and besides the main hall, the other two rooms just displayed miniature dioramas of their camp sites. Still, it was interesting to browse through the history of Girl Scout cookies, and one of the volunteers mentioned that there were fried Girl Scout cookies available throughout the fairgrounds.

I don’t know why, but strangers always look awkward whenever 
you pull out your phone and take pictures of them.

By this point in time, we were fairly tired. According to my phone’s GPS, we walked a little over four miles in four hours throughout our stay at the fairgrounds so we lingered around one of the Hall of State’s pillars and watched the ethnic dancers perform near the concrete steps. It was late in the afternoon, and even though it was chilly, a large audience accumulated around the simple ground level stage. Dressed in beads and feathers, the musicians played several wooden flutes and drums while the performers danced in elaborate feathered headpieces and several beaded bracelets around their wrists and ankles. As they moved in unison, the rattling complemented the music, and at times, became the only source of sound. It was fun, and as their set progressed there were several times where they asked members of the audience to join them. Throughout the three week event, multiple performance groups danced on the modest stage, and their cultures varied from Irish jigs to African ceremonies. And while it’s enjoyed by audiences of all ages, it’s one of the few events at the fair that embraces culture and makes any real attempt to educate or inform its viewers.

Since we entered the fairgrounds, we noticed a thickly draped fence around the placid lagoon where I remembered strolling throughout in my youth. On the other side of the lagoon rested the nature and history museum, the place where I spent hours as a child. And before we left the fair, we made a fairly solemn attempt to reminisce through the life-size displays of dinosaurs and spacious interactive learning centers where kids could develop their sense of wonder and curiosity. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful.

The exhibit cost money, but the extravagant entrance sign was free.

New to the fair, the Chinese lantern festival was held on the lagoon to celebrate the impending Chinese New Year. The exhibition featured varied paper lanterns harmoniously lit across the waters accented by extravagant set pieces from Chinese folklore. At least that’s how I imagined it because the exhibition charged a 10 coupon ($5.00) admission fee, and we weren’t particularly interested in paying for it. Instead, we assumed there was a way around the lagoon to visit the public portion of the nature and science museum. For a while, we walked along dark walls of the impervious vale, but there was no way around it. Later, I checked on the Fair Park’s website, and after paying $5.00 to enter the lagoon, you have to pay an additional $1.00 per person to enter the nature and science museum.

I don't normally curse in text, but that's bullshit.

When I was younger, the nature and science museum was the highlight of the fair. It's a place where science seemed fun and accessible, and it made an otherwise confusing and highbrow subject matter feel practical and interesting. Museums aren't meant to be the primary source for scientific information, but they’re meant to spark an interest. They're meant to get kids involved and make them want to learn. We walked a little further and noticed every museum in the park charged separate admission fees from the children's aquarium to the butterfly house. And to some extent, it made my time at the fair feel shallow and somewhat pointless.

As a citizen of a first world nation, I’m accustomed to flawed and fairly illogical justifications. Case in point, I consumed a corndog, turkey leg, and four oversized onion rings through my time at the fair along with some of my dad’s French fries and one of his fried shrimps, and I rationalized overeating with our four mile trek across the fairgrounds. Rationally, there’s no way that I burned the calories that I consumed, but at the time, it was enough to satisfy my reasoning. In my mind, the museums offset everything that was inherently wrong with the fair from glorifying obesity to mindlessly perusing through expensive and unattainable sports cars. In a sense, I think it’s how the world views Americans; we have an excess of food, arrogance, and consumerism, but we also have invaluable resources such as a diverse, multicultural society and prestigious universities.

At the same time, I know it’s just me. Just a year out of college, I’m still getting used to viewing the city where I grew up as a place where I commute through traffic and habitually go to work. And instead of a place of wonder, somewhere people can learn about different cultures and explore the secrets of the universe, maybe the State Fair of Texas is just an annual event where people can gather to enjoy a few rides, look at several pretty cars, and eat eccentric fried foods.

But I had a fun time, really.


After nearly 60 years of service, Big Tex was incinerated in an electrical fire. Thank you for representing our fair state, and may you return bigger and more fire resistant next year.

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