The Big E, aka the Eastern States Exposition, is the "state fair" equivalent for the six New England states, as none of the six have their own. Begun, according to the Fair's website, as an exhibition called the "National Dairy Show," it eventually morphed into what it has become, a massive fair visited this year by over 1.3 million people, a record. It encompasses all the traditional aspects of a country fair, such as 4H and other livestock competitions, games, and, of course, food. Especially food.
I had never been to The Big E until I was a sophomore in college, despite having grown up in Western Massachusetts, but I've always loved fairs, having frequented both the Franklin County Fair and Ashfield Fall Festival as a kid. Back then I cared more about the games than the food (other than, of course, fried dough), but these days it's all about the food and the adorable furry animals. (See the adorable piglet and alpaca baby from 2011; I should have gotten a picture of the week old alpaca yesterday, but oh well)
In so many ways like other fairs, The Big E has one major unique feature, the Avenue of States, six scale replicas of the original statehouses of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine, each filled with a variety of tourism related booths, including merchants selling representative foods and objects from the state, such as lobster rolls and baked potatoes in the Maine Statehouse. There are also State Troopers from each of the states, as the buildings are "sovereign territory" of each state, though obviously in practical terms this does not apply, but during the The Big E every year they sell lottery tickets from each at or outside their building. The Vermont building includes Cabot cheeses, and they always bring a special Big E cheddar, which is aged longer than any of their other cheddars.
Like most fairs, there are also numerous small outdoor shops and food vendors. These range from the typical corn dog and fresh squeezed lemonade to smoked turkey legs and fried vegetables (fried green tomatoes being my favorite, though I was far too full to end up getting them this time), but there are also a lot of specialty foods. The Big E cream puffs are the most famous, though I'll admit to not being a huge cream puff fan, so I don't ever get these. The Craz-E Burger, a cheeseburger with two glazed doughnuts standing in for the bun, has become popular over the last couple years, along with fried kool-aid and fried Oreo cookies. Popular local burger joint White Hut has a spot, and this year offered a burger sandwiched between two waffles. The star rookie this year, however, were EB's fried shepherd's pie balls, pictured above with a fantastic Spaten Oktoberfest draught beer (purchased from a real German, no less!), and they were exceptional. I had them at the suggestion of a co-worker, and by god, he was right on. The crisp, yet tender crust was perfect, the ground beef was succulent and juicy, and both the gravy that the ground beef was swimming in and that which was offered on the side (or poured over the top) were strong, but did not overwhelm any of the other flavors. Lacking only the potato that traditionally comes as a part of shepherd's pie, the standard flavors were all there.
Of course I also had a corn dog, which was delicious if unremarkable. They're my all time favorite, so despite the relative lack of ambition and creativity that goes along with them, they are an integral part of my fair experience, and I got one almost immediately upon arriving. I also had chicharrones, which were great, though my buddy Jon, who is inexperienced in the eating of them, ended up with a piece of glass-like pork skin stuck in his gum for a couple hours, but otherwise enjoyed them. A fresh squeezed lemonade was great, but a little overly sweet.
We wandered through the various buildings, including a farm building that had, among other things,a coop of chicks, and an incubator for eggs, from which supposedly over 2200 are hatched during the 17 days of the event. This is also where the alpacas are, as well as llamas, typically some pigs (though I didn't see any this year), and some dogs. There are a couple buildings with vendors selling everything from the kind of stuff you see on late night infomercials to beautiful hand-crafted Japanese silk embroidered pictures, and also a "Winter Wonderland" area presented by Kringle Candle, the newest creation of Yankee Candle founder Michael Kittredge.
All in all, The Big E is a great experience, a lot of fun, though it's rather more commercialized than the old time fairs in the area such as Ashfield's, or the Cummington Fair, but it's also better than the Franklin County Fair, which is really just a smaller version of The Big E at this point, though obviously a bit more locally focused. I strongly recommend it to anyone in the area, or anyone who is interested in traveling to the area in mid to late September.
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