On Fair Fare
by Cristina Wiley
William James Morrison of Nashville, Tennessee, was a renaissance man—a lawyer, a writer, a children’s book author, a friend of prominent politicians, and, foremost, a reputable dentist. Yet history would likely have forgotten Morrison if not for his 1897 patent for the first electric, sugar-spinning candy machine. With twin pairs of slicked comb overs, Morrison and his colleague, local candy maker John C. Wharton, carted their invention to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri; branded their product “fairy floss”; and sold 70,000 boxes of the sweet, sticky stuff.
Visit the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair in the early 20th century and cotton candy would be nowhere in sight. But today, a thousand miles east and over one hundred years later, the hanging bags of neon-colored sugar clouds are lit by the soft glow of rainbow bulbs, emblems of that one warm weekend in August.
In the Ag Fair’s early days, when it ran out of Grange Hall—the then-cultural epicenter for social, political and educational discourse for Island farmers—the Rotary Club organized a daily pancake breakfast open to every fair-going child or parent. Back then, maple syrup topped steaming, buttered pancakes and fueled competition participants and spectators alike, while cotton candy was still but an unborn idea in their minds. These communal breakfasts were an essential part of a fairgoer’s visit. At lunch and dinner, a similar scene was set: community groups and culinary entrepreneurs served plates to smiling attendees, mealtimes followed a strict schedule, and the landscape of wasn’t yet dominated by swaths of fried food booths.
By 1920, more Americans lived in metropolitan areas than on rural farms; the agriculturally-focused economy continued its steady decline for the next 40 years. Traditional agricultural fairs were disappearing, and the Ag Fair, relatively unchanged since its very first iteration, was losing money. The Ag Society needed a way to breathe life back into their storied summer tradition.
So, in the 1960s, the Fair Committee decided to bring the carnival to the farm. In 1962, Cushing Amusements, a one-stop operation, brought games, entertainment, and a different kind of food to the Island. And it worked—the attractions appealed to the summer visitors, who around this time started to flood the Island en masse. And here we are.
Today, the fair boasts a balanced mix of carnival food on the midway and a wide range of so-called real food—everything from locally-raised smoked pork, to fresh-blended smoothies, to thick beefy burgers, bunned with cascades of peppers and onions, grilled by real, live fireman. The Fair has its quintessential edibles, but the range of sensually intoxicating culinary delights certainly does not begin and end on the midway.
The transition from Fair to carnival, and the epicurean changes that came with it, marked a not-so-small shift in the Fair’s culture. Meals, once served out the back door of the Grange Hall and enjoyed seated over a good conversation or a juicy bite of gossip became to-go treats, just a short line away. Where a practical cooperation of farming adults once banded together to share knowledge, today’s Fair hosts a playground for the youthful child in us all. From the sights and sounds to the sugary bites, our fair celebrates the height of summer in a whole different, cotton-candy-lit light. Here, we trace the short, fried, and sweet histories of some of our favorite fair fare.
Sixteen years before Cushing brought their nouveau treats across the Vineyard Sound, Ed Waldmire, Jr. dreamt up a fast food phenomenon in his army barracks. His plan? To take handled hot dogs to the big time. Post- World War II, Ed set up shop in Springfield, Illinois, and the Cozy Dog Drive-In sold the first battered and fried hot dog on a stick—then lovingly dubbed “The Crusty Cur,” but later renamed the more straightforwardly appealing corn dog. Battered in a secret mix of corn meal, fried on a convenient-to-hold stick, and served made-to-order and piping hot, the corn dog was an instant hit at his small food shack in middle America. But Waldmire was just one of the many who’ve claimed to have invented this all-American treat: In the 1940s, a product known as “Pronto Pups” sprang up, also in the Midwest. Anyone could purchase a Pronto Pup franchise, and it came with the name and the secret recipe for their batter; or, if owning a restaurant wasn’t your shtick, you could simply purchase a solo Pup from the Minnesota State Fair.
Funnel cakes, a deep-fried puzzle of savory batter, were a holiday treat of the Pennsylvania Dutch. In the 17th and 18th century, these European immigrants came to the United States, settling in southeast Pennsylvania, and bringing with them a bounty of unique culinary delights—including this sweet treat, typically reserved for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
But it wasn’t until the Pennsylvania Dutch Kutztown Folk Festival, countless generations later in the 1960s, that three women fried up a weekend’s worth of funnel cake and served them at 25 cents a piece, forever cementing the sweet treats as a carnival staple. The Dutch likely ate them plain, but they can now be found served at every fair in the country, with every imaginable topping.
Eleanor Neubert, who has been the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair manager since 1984, remembers a childhood spent counting down the days on her calendar until the Fair began, methodically planning out which foods she would try first. The top of her list inevitably began with the most unusual: the candy apple. “It’s just something that we didn’t have [...] here,” she says.
Like most of the classical carnival fair, candy apples were unique to the one weekend in August when the Fair came to town. The mobile food trucks, complete with out-of-state license plates and pop-up lighting fixtures, appeal to the evanescence that makes the Fair so special. It was from these windows that Eleanor, and many a generation of children like her, gleaned a year’s worth of childhood happiness in a few sticky bites.