The Canfield Fair. Largest county fair in the state of Ohio. Harbinger of autumn and the beginning of the school year. Best place to slurp Lemon Shake-Ups, munch fresh-cut fries, and tackle giant corndogs. Showcase of the heartland’s agricultural abundance and continuing farmland traditions. Familiar faces, community spirit, family values. The Canfield Fair: America at its very best.
Lucky me. I grew up just down the road from the Canfield Fair and went at the end of the summer nearly every year in my youth. In high school I was surely more concerned with scoping out those cute corn-fed boys than I was in the myriad varieties of tomatoes and prized gourds in the agricultural barns. But a visit this Labor Day weekend to the fair reminded me just how lucky I am to have grown up in America’s heartland. Today, my parents live even closer to the fair and my fair visit has been one of the highlights of my time here.
This year marked the fair’s 164th anniversary and it’s common to see generations of families milking cows, grooming horses, serving apple cider, and attending the demolition derby together.
Let’s go on a tour of the 2010 Canfield Fair. And let’s, of course, start with the food. At over 350 acres the fair is massive, and much of the space is occupied by concessions. Over 1,000 concessions, according to the fair’s website. Me, first thing I do is go straight for the fresh-cut fries when I go to the Canfield Fair. My mom says there are two brands that vie for the title of best fries: Richardson’s and Hoover’s. Each brand operates multiple stands on different midways. In the interest of research (!), I tried both. First up was Richardson’s.
The perfect fair fry: thicker than a shoestring but definitely not fat, skin-on, soft on the inside and crisp at the edges, bendy, just a tad greasy… the perfect formula for sopping up globs of ketchup and sprays of vinegar. Richardson’s is serious about their fries; they even come in paper cups branded with the company logo. Know what my favorite part of eating fries out of cups is? Those last few stragglers soaked with the tang of ketchup and vinegar hiding down there at the bottom. Go on, fish ‘em outta there, get your fingers and hands greasy and sticky all the way up to your wrist. You only get this once a year.
It was virtually impossible to choose a favorite between Richardson’s and Hoover’s. Hoover’s enjoyed all the same traits of the perfect fry as did the potatoes from Richardson’s.
I suppose I do prefer the glass bottles of vinegar at Hoover’s to Richardson’s spray bottles. I really like a lot of vinegar on my fries, and it takes a lot of spraying to get them to my liking. Richardson’s, though, has an extra size option. At Hoover’s, you choose between small, large, and a bucket. Richardson’s has a tiny little small cup. So, if you’re like me and want to sample as many different fair foods as possible, the small size at Richardson’s will give you a taste without taking up too much room in your stomach.
But I’m splitting hairs here. Richardson’s or Hoover’s – you can’t go wrong.
While Richardson’s is single-mindedly focused on serving the perfect fry, Hoover’s also sells Lemon Shake-Ups, a perennial fair favorite. Glasses full of juiced lemon halves and sugar are lined up along the counter, with bright paper lemonade cups as hats. When you place your order, the vendor adds ice and water and applies a few good, firm shakes. Nothing quenches your thirst better, or serves as a better accompaniment to fries.
Another treat that brings me back to my youth and just screams YOU’RE AT THE FAIR! is a DiRusso’s Italian sausage sandwich topped with peppers, onions, and tomato sauce. This Youngstown-based company gained street-cred by selling its sausage sandwiches at fairs and festivals and is now the best-selling sausage in the area. DiRusso’s is over 50 years old and still uses family recipes that have been handed down for three generations. You can purchase their frozen products at a number of area grocery stores. But it’s only when I eat one of their sausages sandwiches outdoors, surrounded by the atmosphere of the fair, that it take me back to when I was a kid.
You can smell the distinctive aroma of DiRusso’s sausage and peppers before you actually see the concession stand. Their sausage isn’t shy on the spices. You can choose your heat level, but all of them include a good amount of fennel. The soft bun soaks up the tomato sauce and juices from the meat… mmm…
When I go to the Canfield Fair, I usually pick up a fried cheese at the Antone’s booth near the grandstand.
Antone’s is a small local chain of Italian restaurants that has been around since the 1960s. The restaurants serve up Italian classics, of which fried cheese was always my favorite when I was growing up. Antone’s doesn’t bother to cut their cheese into wimpy little batons, like most other places. Oh no. They bread and fry a nice square hunk of mozzarella and top it with a healthy dose of their spaghetti sauce. This isn’t finger food; cut into the square and the cheese oozes out, leaving a trail of stringy goodness all the way to your mouth.
There are a few food items that you just have to order at any fair you visit. Like a corndog.
But just any corndog won’t do at the Canfield Fair. How about a giant corndog? Double the dog, double the size. My dad’s hand is HUGE. This corndog was HUGE. Three of us couldn’t even eat half of it.
The Canfield Fair, like many fairs, is big on the meat. This year a two-pound $17 hamburger made headlines, as did a concession serving chocolate-covered bacon. You can always find piles of grilled turkey haunches, Philly cheesesteaks, and barbecued ribs.
Then there’s the creativity involved with desserts. I spotted a stand advertising deep-fried Pop Tarts. The thought of that makes me nauseous, but warm blackberry cobbler a-la-mode certainly does not.
I also tried a sip of cherri cider that tasted like a cherry Lifesavers and was sweet enough to be dessert.
Other than the concessions selling ready-made fries and sausages and cheeses and meats and desserts, the Canfield Fair is a place where we can connect with the source of our food and the traditions that have inspired Northeast Ohio’s down-home food culture for generations. I particularly enjoyed poking around the poultry barn and watching the cows getting milked. Guess I'm officially a city girl.
The agricultural barns not only display the pride of local farmers and the bounty of the area, but also serve as a colorful reminder of the beauty of the harvest. Many of the produce displays could have easily been mistaken for works of art.
I learned about the multitude of varieties of tomatoes and peppers that are grown locally. They have charismatic names like Fat ‘n’ Sassy, Golden Jubilee, Better Boy, Early Girl, and Green Magic.
My mine was boggled by all the different fruits and vegetables and meats that can be canned (kohlrabi! buffalo?!).
The display of canned items completely fascinated me, with whimsical names (dilly beans), unfamiliar ingredients (sassafras), and a good dose of REALLY?!ness (bison and ground chuck patties).
Did you know there were so many different varieties and colors of apples?!
Or that you could have SO much fun with squash?! Prizes were awarded for fattest zucchini, longest zucchini, heaviest zucchini, prettiest zucchini, and my favorite, curviest zucchini.
The veggie fun didn’t stop there. I think I enjoyed the “Vegetable Oddities” display a little too much. Eggplants with XXX-rated protuberances, convoluted bell peppers, potatoes in unnatural shapes.
I think next year I should enter the vegetable decorating contest. Look up “good, clean fun” in the dictionary and this is the photo you’ll see.
One of my favorite barns has always been the one displaying giant pumpkins. This year, a hefty 1,244-pounder took home the prize.
My ma, pa, and I spent four hours eating and looking at vegetables and canned foods, but there is much more entertainment to be had at the Canfield Fair. Apart from country music concerts and watching the cows being milked, you can also pet baby pygmy goats and watch any number of animal shows.
There are rock bands and Appalachian folk music, too. Just like my grandma and her family probably sang when they lived in a coal-mining camp in West Virginia.
The Canfield Fair is a place where traditions stay alive. Where the past is as relevant as the present, and more valuable than the future.
7265 Columbiana-Canfield Rd.
Canfield, OH 44406
Canfield, OH 44406