Members of The Bee's editorial board fanned out and explored the California State Fair last week. It was a tough assignment, but after much toil and sacrifice, they brought back these impressions.
The fairest Ferris wheel of all
The State Fair is one of our last links to the carnies of old those traveling employees and hucksters of the carnivals with their rapid-fire banter and sometimes freakish appearances, like characters out of a Fellini movie.
I was a little disappointed that, upon visiting the State Fair's emporium of hot tubs yes, this is the California State Fair I didn't encounter any carny salespeople. I was hoping to see a guy in a top hat, floating in one of the bubbling pools and yelling, "Step right up, folks! The water's warm. Jump right in and enjoy this deluxe Jacuzzi practice pool with its own ultra-jets and sound system! All yours for just $25,000!"
Instead, I found a salesman so laid back he must have spent hours in one of his Jacuzzis. Even so, he told me he'd likely sell 50 to 60 hot tubs by the time the fair ended. Maybe the laid-back shtick was working for him.
Tyrone, one of the stars of Jewels of the Jungle, certainly had the right carny appearance. The only problem was Tyrone couldn't talk. He was a 4-foot-long red tegu, a lizard from Uruguay. And he had his own handler, to make sure he didn't escape into "Wine Country" and trigger a riot among the oenophiles.
Any visit to the State Fair must conclude with a sunset or late-evening ride on the Giant Ferris Wheel. When you are at the top, there's no better view of the lit-up midway rides and the Sacramento skyline in the distance. The smell of popcorn and fried unmentionables wafts into the upper atmosphere, and for a brief moment, there is nothing but peace and grease in the world.
Let us now praise the mop guy
I have a harness-like contraption in my desk drawer at work. It straps around my waist and buttocks and when properly adjusted it's supposed to relieve lower back pain. It worked when the salesman fitted it on me at the State Fair several years ago and it was selling for the low, low price of I don't remember and it doesn't matter. I have never been able to fit it correctly. So it sits in my desk, unused a reminder of my gullibility.
No matter. I remain a sucker for the pitchmen at the fair, the tattooed guys selling shoe cleaners. "Respect your shoes," they coax. A former waitress turned master marketer sells APR arthritic pain relief. "It shrinks swollen tissues, brings back blood flow, takes pain away," she promises. "But, will it make me beautiful?" a prospective customer asks.
"Well, I was a frog this morning," she responds, not missing a beat.
My hands-down favorite this year was the mop guy. Steve Pineda sells Starfiber Mops, the best mop in the world just ask Pineda. "Most mops leave the dirt on the floor, but Starfiber's special fibers, 100 times thinner than the human hair, removes the dirt, the dust, the paw prints, the germs, the shoe scuffs, and does it all without chemicals."
At $90, the mop and its 22 attachments actually save money, he says, because you won't spend $150 on chemicals every year.
He almost had me, but then my brain flashed back to that harness in my desk and I moved on to the massage pillow. At $39.99 plus tax, that's a real steal.
Fewer but better county exhibits
The county exhibits at the State Fair have fallen on hard times.
Even fewer counties are represented than last year 25, down from 29, which was the fewest since the exhibits returned to the fair in 1986.
But as I toured this year's crop the other day, many of the exhibits seemed noticeably better than 2012 more interesting and hands-on.
Glenn County snagged "Best in Show" for the first time with its "land of milk and honey" display, complete with a giant beehive with a real hive inside; a huge bumblebee flying above a bounty of food products; and sunflowers with photos of residents in the center of each. What's not to like?
Terrie Salvagno-Barr, who designed the exhibit for the county, told me it was a labor of love that took almost two months to build.
Sacramento County's entry, which won "Best Design," promotes the "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital" campaign with a full plate spinning atop a giant green fork that is also a plant. Pretty cool.
If you want to learn a little something about our state, it's well worth a stop. Besides, the exhibits are in the California Building, which boasts two fair essentials: air conditioning and scrumptious yet supremely unhealthy food.
All hail the Hall of Heroes
I enjoy the full State Fair experience. The music (especially local bands like Los Elegantes on Thursday night), the rides, the Sacramento Zoo's Amazon jungle exhibit (complete with giant cockroaches), the Wine Country (a chance to try new California wines), the priceless California "happy cow" ads (especially the poor cow trying to escape Minnesota winter), the bungee jump, the lights, the noise, the diversity of people.
I loved the Hall of Heroes a trip into DC Comics and Marvel Comics history. Can you name all the superheroes in the Justice League? You can take your photo next to the large green humanoid The Hulk. You can test your gripping strength, stepping ability and knowledge of wind speeds.
But super food remains hard to find. The main food thoroughfares, clustered around the music stages, are dominated by fried, processed, gaudy foods JUMBO corn dogs, GIANT western sausage, curly fries, chocolate-covered bacon. Why not create the mother of all farmers' markets at the State Fair, complete with cooking booths?
Four hours was not enough to take in all I wanted to see. I'll be back for the tree climbing, wild science, urban farming, art, livestock and California coast exhibits. The fair is starting to look more like a truly state fair, but still has the feel to me of an oversized county fair.
Bacon, bacon everywhere
At least it wasn't 105 degrees, like the last time I was a fairgoer. There were no tickets available at the booth with the sign on top that says "Tickets" near the West Gate entrance. But once inside, the spectacle of the fair unfolded with all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that I find, um curiously entertaining.
We were hungry, so the first thing to search out was a fair standby the traditional corn dog. Regular size, medium or gigante it was about the size of a baseball bat. I settled for a Merlino's Freeze.
I was holding out for bacon. Bacon, bacon, bacon.
Gouda-stuffed mushrooms wrapped in bacon on a skewer. Sounded great. Smelled wonderful. Or we could have had beer-battered, deep-fried bacon. Or bacon-wrapped cheese bombs. All of them sounded better than the chocolate-covered bacon or the bacon-wrapped cheesecake.
While in search of all that was bacon, music from Blues and Brews drew me to one side of the walkway, and on the other side I spotted Wine Country.
Forget the rides and the sideshows; this was one exhibit I could settle in and comfortably enjoy. Away from the crowds and out of the heat, we tasted double-gold winners from the fair's competition and a few others. Other fair-goers sat amid the wine barrels engaged in conversation with a bottle of wine. With a glass of zin we focused on the bacon-wrapped mushrooms.
While the food and the wine seemed to be the focus of this fair visit, what I really enjoyed as we headed for the exit were the lights from the rides and games that filled the night sky with color and imagination.