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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Celebration of excess and farming at the Big E

Published: October 1, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

The Big E is the corniest fair on the East Coast. And I love it. Every fall my family and I make the pilgrimage to West Springfield, Mass. for New England’s Eastern State Exposition.

Part carnival, part agricultural show-case and part food and booze binge, the Big E is a mixture of everything there is to love and hate about New England.

Everything about the Big E screams excess. This is especially true when it comes to its dining offerings. There are obscene amounts of almost every kind of unhealthy food imaginable. While there are the usual food items sold at carnivals, such as candy apples, popcorn and cotton candy, there are more unusual decadent snacks as well. A walk around the numerous vendors in the Midway and in the food court would make someone think that fried food had its own separate block on the food pyramid. There are fried snicker bars, pickles, chocolate-chip cookie dough balls, blooming onions, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Huge portions are offered virtually everywhere; in fact, the fair’s trademark dessert is a colossal cream puff that requires two hands (and probably two stomachs) to eat. Although I didn’t spot it for myself, there was a rumor, so disgusting that it could only be true, of a burger with two doughnuts for buns. Welcome to New England.

Booze is also bountiful. At the food court there is a German beer stand and at the Italian Pavilion there is a martini bar sponsored by V-One vodka. At the pavilion, a bartender with glazed eyes and a slow muffled way of talking made caramel apple, pomegranate and dirty martinis for the jacked-up price of $11. People drank from their small plastic cups while walking through the fair.

While some argue that our culture has become health-obsessed, one only has to smell the powdered sugar wafting from the mini-doughnut stand or slurp a day-glo colored slushy to realize that eating unhealthily and to excess is still an enormous problem confronting society. The Big E is perpetrating this by combining food with festival and social gatherings with over-consumption.

When the Big E began in the early 1900s, it was simply a way for local farmers to show and learn about innovations in agriculture. Although the greasy food and flashy carnival games have almost overshadowed the Big E’s original purpose, remnants of the fair’s beginnings can still be seen. The National Future Farmers of America organization has several events and demonstrations peppered throughout the fair, along with many other agricultural organizations. There are farm equipment demonstrations, livestock showings, North County line dancers and Ox- pulling, as well as cheese and wine competitions. This celebration of local farmers and techniques is odd when viewed in the context of the processed and unnatural foods that have nearly taken over the fair. Yet this focus on agriculture is one of the reasons I enjoy the fair so much.

The other reason is the Avenue of States. The six participating states, Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, each have a replica of their original state houses, at the exposition. Inside the state houses people can sample the culinary and cultural offerings of the state, such as Maine’s blueberries and wildlife, Vermont’s maple syrup and wool products, and Massachusetts’ cranberries and history. Each state house is owned by its state in order to promote tourism.

The agricultural aspect and focus on the participating states are the main reasons why I attend the Big E. They keep it from being a binge-fest by highlighting what farmers and New England states contribute to America’s culture.