Now that McDonald’s is scaring off customers by posting calories on the drive-through menu, where’s a junk-foodie to go? To the Big E in West Springfield, of course, where the long, skinny arm of the Boston Public Health Commission can’t reach.
The organizers of New England’s largest fair didn’t know it, but in 1917 they created the last safe zone in the national war on fatty foods. At the Eastern States Exposition, gluttony is still encouraged and admired, and otherwise rational people cluster around a sculpture of butter and gape without irony, cream puff in one hand, corn dog in the other. You walk past the food booths, inhale the scent of deep-fried ecstasy, and wonder: How is this even legal just three hours from Michael Bloomberg’s New York City?
The fair has endured despite the economy’s woes — and despite the dangers that might lurk there, culinary or otherwise. We won’t let our kids go outside for fear of a mosquito bite, but can they climb into a steel cage and dangle high above us, screaming? Sure, we’re good with that; here’s another $5. America used to be a nation of risk-takers, and you can still witness that noble, daring spirit strutting through the midway at dusk. If the bravado is diminished somewhat by a powdered-sugar mustache, let it be known that all the best cowboys carry giant stuffed pandas that they won betting quarters on colors.
Or, more likely, dollars. Inflation has its limits on the fairground; you can only demand so much for food impaled on a stick. But with parking, admission ($15 just to get in), rides, and the food — which is why most people are there — a couple of hours at the Big E quickly tops $50 per person, making that $12 movie ticket, so outrageous last weekend, look like a steal.
But there are no cream puffs at the cineplex. Nor eclairs the size of guinea pigs or bacon cheeseburgers wrapped in glazed doughnuts. No fried Oreos, no fried lasagna, no fried Kool-Aid, no fried whoopie pies, no fried cheese curd. In West Springfield, if it sits still long enough, someone will fry it — so keep a close eye on your children and small dogs.
How many calories are in these things? Who knows? Who cares? If you have to ask, you don’t deserve it. If calories matter, you cannot truly appreciate the complex aroma and the silky finish of a blob of fried chocolate-chip cookie dough. Ah, capitalism. Ah, gallbladders. They do a body good.
On its website, the Big E lists its choices for “ambulatory eating.” They mean “ambulatory” as in “walking,” but we feel “ambulatory” as in “ambulance.” Those of us about to fry salute Bob Cratchit, who said to Scrooge so piteously, “It’s only once a year, sir.” We will be good for the rest of the year, or at least until Thanksgiving.
Three years ago, the scroogish governor of Michigan did away with the state fair there. Saying the state could no longer afford to subsidize fun, then-governor Jennifer Granholm signed away 160 years of tradition when she vetoed an appropriation for the event. No such worries here. The Big E is self-supporting; no government funds are involved. And, recession be damned, two days have already seen record-breaking numbers, although attendance was down this year in other states, including New York, Colorado, and Kentucky.
Let’s keep it up, and do our part for the glory that is the Big E. The fair’s last day is Sept. 30. Until the food police haul away the last grease-slicked carnie in cuffs, we owe it to them — indeed, to Americana — to keep the midway twinkling. It’s our heritage. Besides, it’s for our intellectual betterment. “The Eastern States Exposition is organized as an educational institution under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” Says that on the Big E website, no joke. I love this country, where you can still major in fat and minor in sugar. Fry me to the moon.Jennifer Graham writes regularly for The Globe. Her website is www.jennifergraham.com.