When most of us think of the Champlain Valley Fair, which opened yesterday in Essex Junction, Vermont, we don’t think of fine dining. We think of pork boners. (I just love that I can write those two words in a family newspaper.) We imagine the fried dough. We revel in our memories of Mini Cooper-sized vats of fried onion rings. I know I could live quite happily, thank you very much, on the maple creemees and doughnuts and cotton candy that are found in the sugarhouse. The aroma alone makes the sugarhouse one of my favorite places on earth.
But there is another side to fair food. It’s not necessarily elegant and it’s certainly not fine dining. But it is creative. I am referring to the smelly sneaker version of desserts: The fair’s annual Ugly Cake Contest for kids. It occurs this year on the last day of the fair, a week from Monday, and I am telling you about it now so you and your kids have a full eight days to prepare.
The rules are simple. The fair will give your child baked cake rounds. The contestants will have 15 minutes to use the rounds as the basis for their repulsive cakes, decorating them with whatever they want – as long as every single item they bring with them to the fair is edible. There will be prizes for kids between 5 and 10 years of age, and another set for the teenagers between 11 and 16. Judging will be 2:30 on September 2nd, but you should pre-register at www.champlainvalleyfair.org.
Chris Ashby, director of marketing and communications at the Champlain Valley Exposition, told me that among the winning cakes the last few years was one that included a dead squid. “A squid is edible, so it counted,” he said. The cake used green icing for seaweed. Another winner was a massive, scuplted eyeball, complete with veins.
Of course, there are plenty of other gastronomic reasons to visit the fair between now and a week from Monday. There is a chili contest this coming Friday, as well as the traditional county fair contests for pies and brownies and breads. Meanwhile, the Essex Resort and Spa will be offering cooking demonstrations three times a day in the fair’s “culinary department” in the Ware Building Annex. (I love the idea that the fair has a “culinary department.”)
Whatever you do, however, here is one critical safety tip: Be sure and schedule a little time between your eating and your riding. As Ashby explained, “You probably want to avoid a ride like the Stinger if you’ve just eaten a few pork boners.” (Just for the record, I did not pay Ashby to say “pork boner.”) The Stinger is one of the thrill rides that twists and turns and leaves your stomach somewhere up near your ears.
Ashby’s advice? If you’re going to eat like Honey Boo Boo Child, walk around the fair for a little while before savoring the next ride: “My favorite thing about the fair is that there are so many different things to do. Visit the history exhibits. This year the University of Vermont is bringing a terrific piece on the story behind I-89. You wouldn’t think the interstate is that interesting, but it is. UVM brought a huge archive of photographs.” In addition, Vermont’s Civil War historian, Howard Coffin, will be at the fair each and every day. This summer is the 150th anniversary of the battles of Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga, and there is no one more knowledgeable about the role Vermonters played in the conflict than Coffin.
Today is only day two of the fair. That means there is still plenty of time to design the world’s ugliest cake, visit the world’s biggest pumpkin – which, I promise you, will be at least as scary as any of those cakes – and scarf down a maple doughnut. . .or two. Visit the cows and the horses. Watch a baby chick hatch.
Sure, we all eat like there’s no tomorrow and our arteries will never forgive us. But the fair is, first and foremost, the chance to set free that little kid inside us all – that kid who knows there’s nothing cooler than a cake with a squid.
This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 25, 2013. His most recent novel, "The Light in the Ruins," was published in July.