Then & Now
by Chris Fischer
The first agricultural fair on Martha’s Vineyard was held in October 1858. It was a harvest festival, and more than 1,800 people (over half of the Vineyard’s population) made their way to the middle of the island to congregate under tents. Herdsmen led cows, shepherds guided sheep, some folks rode horses, and many others came in carts or walked carrying chickens and flowers and vegetables and the bedrolls they used to camp out in the surrounding fields during the two-day event.
The draw was the opportunity for people to pit livestock, produce, and themselves against one another in what I imagine as a Farmers’ Olympics, with tests of strength, skill, power, and pedigree. It was also a chance for a get-together–a great big party, before the inevitable hunkering down winter would bring. The gathering was such a success that they built a grange hall the very next year.
That’s where the fair was held for most of Poppy’s life (a new hall was raised to accommodate expanding crowds 20 years ago). Poppy loved the fair and never lost his childish delight in the annual celebration. He told us what it was like when he was young, and about the foot races he won competing against other heavy-booted or bare-footed farmers’ and fishermen’s sons. But though he remembered it fondly, he didn’t dwell on the past. Poppy served as president of the Ag Society in his middle years, then as a livestock judge (deciding the poultry face-offs was the hardest, he always said, as chicken farmers can get plenty heated). And all his life he enthusiastically entered his flowers and vegetables.
These days the fair is held over [four] days in late August. I have gone all my life, and every year it’s packed with locals and summer people enjoying themselves from the time the first tickets go on sale until the last carnival rides shut down.
The food you eat when you go is in its own special category. It’s a mix of enticing once-a-summer-delights, celebratory and seductive, and includes both island favorites and midway standbys. At the early fairs I’m guessing they ate roasted meat, grilled corn, and hand-churned ice cream; maybe oysters or chowder or slices of blackberry pie. Today you’ll still find chowder, ice cream, and corn, but also burgers and tacos and fried this and that.
I confess I have a soft spot for fair food. It is tasty, especially so when made carefully with good local ingredients. So, I’ve reimagined my favorite guilty pleasures just a little. They would all still be a delicious treat to enjoy as you watch the ox-pull before you go on the Ferris wheel, but the recipes that follow go beyond their humble origins…this “menu” is intended not as a meal, but rather as a starting place for creating summer repasts that share the fun of a day at the fair.
Excerpted from The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook by Chris Fischer. Copyright ©2015 by Chris Fischer. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.