Friday, October 10, 2008

Fun...and food at the Topsfield Fair

Last weekend kicked off the 190th annual Topsfield Fair, America’s oldest agricultural fair, which continues through Monday. While New England holds quite a few firsts in the American History department, it’s somewhat surprising that an agricultural festival in a small town on the North Shore of Massachusetts can trump the Midwest and South – in many ways the heartland of America’s farming industry – by being the oldest. Go figure.

History and bragging rights aside, where else are you going to get to see the Royal Canadian Mounted Police do their musical ride!?!

Now, I’m not letting you get to the good stuff without another history lesson, folks, so snuggle up to the screen and read on. The Topsfield Fair was first started in 1818 by the Essex Agricultural Society, a group of farmers who wanted to “promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County.” It began as a series of cattle shows with exhibits and fairs held all over the county until, in 1910, it settled at what is now known as the Topsfield Fairgrounds in Topsfield, MA. Incidentally, the fairgrounds just so happens to be the same site where, in 1818, the original farmers gathered in Cyrus Cummings Tavern to form the Society.

Today, the Essex Agricultural Society has more than 1,200 members and the fair has been held annually since 1818 except for on six occasions, all mandated by government decree: it was suspended for three years during the Civil War and for three years, 1943-1945, during World War II.

What makes the Topsfield Fair so interesting, aside from the enormous gourds, blue ribbon steers and educational agricultural lessons, is the food – the prized local fare as well as the old, staple favorites that all of us, whether we’re six or ninety-six – look forward to when we enter the turnstiles. Lets take a look, shall we? Here are some fun facts about our favorite fair foods.

Cotton Candy
Different forms of Cotton Candy have been around since as early as the 1400s, when chefs in Europe added elements of spun sugar to desserts. The spun sugar was often thick and resembled blown glass rather than the light and fluffy Cotton Candy of today, but it was still malleable and took shape as webs, eggs, bird's nests, castles and other designs. In the 1800's, making Cotton Candy was a difficult and dangerous task. Loaf sugar (made from cane or beets) was combined with water and other ingredients and heated until just the right temperature and consistency. When ready, the candy maker would use a fork or whisk to pull the hot liquid out of pot and fling it in the air, cooling it quickly (just imagine the burns!). What we consider to be modern Cotton Candy was invented in 1897 by four men. John C. Wharton and William Morrison, a pair of Nashville candy-makers, developed a patented electric machine that used centrifugal force to spin and melt sugar through small holes. In 1900, Thomas Patton patented a gas-fired rotating plate to make Cotton Candy around a fork and debuted it at the Ringling Brothers Circus. Around the same time, Louisiana dentist Josef Lascaux made Cotton Candy available at his office (to drum up business, perhaps?). In 1904, Wharton and Morrison took Cotton Candy, or "Fairy Floss," as it was known at the time, to the St. Louis World's fair, where they sold 68,655 boxes for 25 cents a box, making a whopping $17,163.75 on the novel snack.

Candy Apples
Candy apples (or candied apples) first appeared in 1908, when Newark candy-maker William Kolb, experimenting with red cinnamon candy around Christmastime, dipped apples in the mixture and put them on display in the front windows of his shop. It soon became an annual item and spread all over the Jersey Shore and beyond. Today, the candy coating largely remains a combination of sugar, corn syrup, water, cinnamon and red food coloring that creates a hardened shell when it cools on the surface of an apple. In America, candy apples are typically found in the fall around Halloween, when apples are in season. A close cousin to the candy apple is the toffee or caramel apple, which was invented in the 1950's by Dan Walker, a sales rep for Kraft Foods. Just as yummy.

Funnel Cake
The Pennsylvania Dutch and Spanish generally battle for the title of creator of the funnel cake. But whether you're a batter frying German immigrant or a Churro fan from Mexico, you've certainly helped influence a nation's love for friend snacks. Funnel cake is made by pouring batter through a funnel and into hot oil in a circular web pattern and frying it until golden brown. Depending on the region, it can be served with powdered sugar, jelly or any number of other toppings.Because they are quick to make and must be served or eaten soon after frying, they are a popular staple at fairs, ballparks and other events. How is funnel cake different from fried dough? Well, fried dough and elephant ears are similar to funnel cakes in that they are fried in hot oil, but the batter for these treats is made with a yeast dough. Funnel cake batter is made with unleavened butter.

Corn Dogs
The corn dog dates back as early as 1929, with a "Krusty Korn Dog baker" appearing in the Albert Pick-L. Barth catalog of hotel and restaurant supplies. While it was likely born out of the rise of street vendors in the early 1900's, many lay claim to its invention. Carl and Neil Fletcher were the first to sell them at the Texas State Fair in the late 1930's;The Pronto Pup vendors were feeding hungry masses at the Minnesota State Fair in 1941; Cozy Dog Drive-in, in Springfield, IL, claims to have been the first to serve corn dogs on sticks, in 1946, and also in 1946, Dave Barham opened the first location of Hot Dog on a Stick at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California.

What's your favorite the fair?

Fabulous Feasting,
The Diva.


  1. I love all those things you talk about- the only cotton candy I will eat is the type that is spun right before my eyes. It's so delightfully sweet and meltingly good.

    I was once eating a funnel cake at some festival and couldn't figure out why everyone was chuckling who looked at me until I realized that I was covered with powdered sugar.

    Great history lesson!!!

  2. Note to self: Do not read DoD's blog before breakfast, as you will start salivating rather embarrassingly at your desk!

  3. Not sure what my favorite fair fare is, but I saw a most remarkable thing at last year's San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton, Calif: fried Coca-Cola! Not sure how they do it, and was too creeped out to get close enough to find out.


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Fabulous Feasting,
The Diva.