Giant cows, sheep in coats, neon Ferris wheels, huge wheels of cheese, racing pigs and deep fried everything – just a few of the wonders found at our local county fair. Except for the pig races, which we sadly missed, we experienced all of these last Sunday at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. But the thing I cared about the most was one little ribbon in one little pavilion on a plate full of cherry tomatoes. To be precise, my cherry tomatoes.
I’ve always loved county fairs. We frequently attended the Saratoga County Fair when I was a kid, home of many animal exhibits and at least one absolutely terror-inducing ride that clearly didn’t meet any reasonable level of safety standards. When we moved to Montgomery County, which has an entire agricultural reserve, I knew it would have a worthwhile fair. With three years of gardening experience, I thought it would be fun to enter my tomatoes in the fair last year, but it directly overlapped with our trip to Disney World. So I held off until this year.
While I do think of them as “my tomatoes,” gardening is really a family affair. We picked cherry tomatoes because it’s the one crop that we always have plenty to spare. This year, I was particularly proud of them because I raised the plants from seed I had saved, so they were fully mine. But they would have died long ago without Chris’s regular watering and pruning. Even Sprout helps out, using his little can to water (mainly his shoes) and picking red tomatoes (that usually go from the branch right into his mouth). I wasn’t able to pick the tomatoes for the fair myself without a small person trying to steal half of them, so Chris did it for me and even dropped them off for judging. It was the perfect job to tap his fine dining training – as he said, “I’m actually really good at small, repetive motions to make things look just perfect.”
So walking up to the vegetable table at the Farm and Garden and Flowers Department was exciting for everyone. Spout was already thrilled that we got to ride a school bus from the parking lot, so this was yet another amazing thing of the day. I stopped breathing as I looked for our plate. First place was literally a five dollar prize that they probably haven’t increased since 1950, but it was the pride of it that mattered.
Our entry turned out to be pretty easy to find because it was the only one with the stems still on the tomatoes. Although person accepting the entries recommended to Chris remove them, but he was worried about bruising one in the process. While none of the stems fell off – which would have disqualified us – they were a little wilted, which detracted from the tomatoes’ deep red just a bit.
All of that considered, we received – an honorable mention ribbon. But hey, it was something! I was a little disappointed that we didn’t place in the top three or even five, but it was a solid showing for the first year participating.
It made me feel validated as a gardener. Even though I’ve grown pounds upon pounds of food for my family and raised enough seedlings to give away to others, this outside recognition of my skill was special. It felt like entering an exclusive – albeit quirky – club. It was a similar feeling to the first time my writing was published in print. Like the connection I feel to my neighborhood while gardening, it was the sense of contributing to the history and larger whole of the county’s Agriculture Reserve. As someone relatively new to gardening in the grand scheme of things, it also reminded me of how far I’ve come. Only four years ago, my neighbor was betting to her friend against my garden being successful. She’d be so proud to see my ribbon now.
We celebrated our recognition by looking at all of the animal exhibits. Many of the animals at the Fair are owned by 4H students, who raise them as projects. Sprout’s favorites were definitely the chickens and bunnies – they’re more his size and less overwhelming than the cattle.
From there, we abandoned all pretense of sustainability or “local food” and headed to the Carnival. Filling up on fried chicken on a stick, fried green tomatoes, mutant-large corn on the cob, and watermelon, we tried to prevent get-away attempts from an excited small child. Fortunately for him, the next stop was a Funhouse in the style of the one in Grease. Starting with the rickety stairs to the slide at the end, he ran through with a smile.
We ended our night with the county fair classic – the Ferris Wheel. I have a necklace with a picture of an old-fashioned Ferris Wheel on it, which I’ve been telling Sprout about for months. After 20 minutes of waiting, we stepped into the car. As the wheel rotated, it lifted us up high above the fairgrounds, each step up revealing a little more landscape. The other rides glowed blue, red, and green, lines and curves of neon. The exhibits we had been at earlier retreated in the distance, dark as the animals started to bed down. The pop music from the rides and the chattering of the crowds lessened to a low background accompaniment. Once in a while, I would glance over at Sprout, who was in Chris’s lap across from me. His eyes were wide, his mouth parted just slightly, not a smile, but his signature look of concentration. He just watched, as he always does.
And tonight, as all nights, he was watching Chris and I. He was watching our pride in our handiwork, just as he watched and helped us tend the plants. He watched our participation in the larger community, engaging with the 4H students. He watched as we enjoyed simple pleasures like the Funhouse and Ferris Wheel. While I rarely do things just to “be an example,” I hope that my whole life is one, on that night and all of them.