Pigs sporting colourful neckerchiefs raced out of numbered stalls to reach a prize – an Oreo cookie. The crowd cheered for their favourites. Afterwards we were offered coupons for free bacon at a local supermarket chain. I declined.
The Los Angeles County Fair (LACF), held throughout September, is in Pomona which is less than 30 miles from Los Angeles city, but I felt slap-bang in Middle America.
This once agricultural-orientated event is now a family-friendly affair attracting many Latinos, often the torchbearers of old-fashioned wholesome US values. People were warm and friendly. Pleasures were simple.
Food, mostly supersized and involving meat, was dunked in sugar, coated with salt, deep-fried, and often all three. I turned away from the milk chocolate-covered bacon and the smouldering giant turkey legs that could double as truncheons. Worse, for me (as a vegetarian), were the pairs of battered frog legs still attached to the lower half of their bodies, bacon-wrapped choux pastries called churros flavoured with Jack Daniel’s and served with syrup and cream, and Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburgers – that’s right, cheeseburgers sandwiched between doughnuts. The ribbon-adorned, prize-winning homemade cakes, cookies, and scones, growing stale behind glass cabinets, looked more palatable.
Did the four couples who married at the fair (and their guests) indulge while wearing wedding finery? And what happened to people eating before going on stomach-churning amusement rides?
The fairground, a 543-acre former beet field, is the biggest in the US. It looked nothing like it did when my partner Bill and I became US citizens in one of the exhibition halls three years ago, along with 3,000 others. That was a morning spent joining one long line after another, and we were miffed that we had to fork out $10 for parking on top of the thousands we had already spent in naturalisation costs. But we had a warmer reception than the 5,500 Japanese American citizens and legal residents rounded up at the fairground during World War Two before being sent to internment camps.
LACF has the obligatory parade – Americans love them. This one had vibrantly coloured classic cars, majorettes in glitter-sprinkled uniforms that sparkled in the sun, and the magnificent Budweiser Clydesdales pulling a vintage red and golden beer wagon. By the side of the green-liveried drivers was a stock-still Dalmatian.
There were petting zoos, circus acts, and science shows for kids. At the latter, I discovered that a can of Diet Coke floats because its artificial sweetener makes it less dense than water, while a can of regular Coke containing sugar sinks – at this fair you can’t get away from sugar, even in science shows.
I also learned something about myself – that I couldn’t always tell sheep from goats by looking, especially when they are both woolly. That Biblical parable about separating the sheep and goats has taken on a whole new meaning.
I was scared of the goats, warmed to the sheep, thought the cows beautiful and loved the pigs – especially the ones that were quietly snoozing in pig-sized trenches they had dug themselves. One twitched his trotters. Was he dreaming?
On reading the sign saying that ‘Pigs are smart like a 3-year-old child – curious, mischievous and sometimes manipulative’, did people feel weird when chomping on half-pound pork chops on a stick?
Memories were triggered thick and fast. Of being taken to the West Yorkshire Pudsey Feast as a timid child. The giddiness of being out at dusk, coloured bulbs giving a touch of Christmas in summer, the sweet smell of candy floss, trying to hook plastic ducks to win a toy, balls hurled at coconuts that seemed glued to their shies, the dodgems I was never allowed to go on, and the rough-looking roustabouts who frightened me.
Seeing the meat on display made me think of being dragged by my mother around the slippy floors of Bradford’s Rawson’s indoor market, now an Asian Bazaar. She was trying to cure me of my distaste for the sight and – worse – smell, of blood. Pigs’ heads and tongues hung from hooks. She treated herself to a saucer of pie and peas with mint sauce, or a tub of tripe in milk. In both cases, I averted my eyes, just like I did at LACF.
One early job as a journalist was interviewing Pudsey’s last tripe dresser, Job Ross, known as Tripey Ross. He talked of the days when he collected the tripe from local butchers in his horse and cart. He showed me the white baths in which he scrupulously washed and cleaned the stomachs. I didn’t look away that time, but then I was on assignment. Years later the baths were, for a while, used as planters in front of Pudsey Leisure Centre.
Many people come to LACF to shop – it’s home to the largest shopping place in the US West, with 1,000-plus booths selling everything from home appliances to spa equipment and cars. I was reminded of working at Queen’s Hall Exhibition Centre in Leeds as a student. It was bone-cold, maybe as cold as when it started life as a tram shed, then a bus depot. In breaks, I’d wander around the exhibits trying to look detached so that sellers pushing modern versions of snake oil wouldn’t mistake me for a regular mark. Later, Queen’s Hall became a rock venue. The Beatles performed there in 1963. Acker Bilk topped the bill. In 1981 Motorhead complained about the acoustics.
And I thought about the agricultural shows I covered as a cub reporter, panicking in case I misreported which cake and which pigs had won which prize. Getting it wrong would have been a sin for a local newspaper.
I bought a margarita cocktail served in what looked like a giant green plastic pepper pot with holes in the sealed top. Not bad – but $12 for a shot of tequila, a squirt of lime juice, and ice seemed a bit steep. Mind you, it took my mind off the pigs, for a while.
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.