01
Oct
07

…But You Can’t Take the Country Out of the City

When I was reminded this summer of the last remaining functioning farm in New York City, the longest continually farmed land (by white people) in the state, there was no question that Jeff and I had to go check it out. Of all the crazy things to do in this city, surely this must be among the craziest. And the Queens County Fair, held in mid-September out on the Nassau County border in Floral Park, a neighborhood I’d never heard of, was the perfect opportunity.

Being good Midwesterners, we love a good fair, and having lived in Minnesota for a good chunk of time, we’ve had a taste of the best. (The Minnesota State Fair, though it is the second largest state fair in the country after Iowa, will always get my blue ribbon. But I am not without my prejudices.) The Queens County Fair is a charming escape from urban frenzy, recalling the ghosts of an agrarian past that New York City has all but forgotten, but it seemed to me ultimately a desperate recreation of a Queens that no longer exists. (I have found that Queens is often the site of such grand anachronisms. Witness the World’s Fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows.)

For the owners of the prize-winning chickens and wood carvings, this is still obviously a very present and real lifestyle, but for the vast majority of us, this is all a vision of “the old days.” The farmhouse, the fairgrounds, the vegetation, the animals — the odors — it is all an exhibit. The site is in fact a museum — a source of amusement and distraction for us city folk, no longer front and center in our minds as the backbone of a way of life.

Also, it’s a very white audience, which may have reflected the local demographic 50 years ago, but not today. The clearest example of this that I saw was the Bavarian tent, with its beers and brats and lederhosen. It’s a long-time staple of events like this, but why? The gyros and kebabs of the midway could have come out of Astoria, maybe, but a far better representation of the county might have included empanadas, halal chicken and rice, or maybe some tandoori or curry. Not that I have anything at all against beers and brats. Or lederhosen.

A woman working in the livestock tent said to a patron, “City kids don’t have a chance to see this stuff.” Goats and cows and chickens are exotic to us now. Ironically, these days, as suburbs and exurbs encroach on the shrinking countryside, many country kids don’t get to see so much of this stuff either. Neither good nor bad, I suppose; just true.

A pictorial:
Chicken
Green Acres — You can see we’re still in the city.

Chicken
MENSA Chicken — Some of the chickens were wandering around the fairgrounds, while others among them were too stupid or unlucky to figure out how to escape their pens.

Cock
Big Cock — Roosters really are sort of beautiful, even if they’re standing next to a dirty man-made “pond.”

Turkey
Turkey — “When Thanksgiving time is here, then it’s our turn to gobble, gobble, gobble.”

Squash
Ouch! — Do you cook with these or defend yourself against burglars?

Pumpkins
Orange Crush — I have a perfectly healthy obsession with pumpkins.

Veggies
Eat ‘Em Up — Oh, what I couldn’t do with a sharp knife and a cutting board.

Eggplants
Purple Haze — Look at all the shiny, purple lusciousness. This was one of the most beautiful things I saw at the fair.

Rhubarb
All Tarted Up — Midwesterners like me have a special fondness for rhubarb.

Fat Hogs
Super Size — These hogs are so painfully obese, they can hardly stand, and their bellies scrape the ground when they walk.

Goat and Jeff
Face to Face — I can hardly tell the difference between this goat and my husband! They’re both so cute.

Goat and Arley
Man and Beast — Arley tries communicating with a billy goat.

Creepy Snake Guy
Charmer — This guy popped up all over the place. I couldn’t tell if he was officially part of the fair or if he was just some creepy guy who showed up with a snake to show around. Touch my snake! Touch my snake!

White men singing
White Men Singing — Seeing these guys sort of reinforced the whiteness of the whole thing.

The petting farm, pony rides, hay rides, magic shows and blue ribbon-winning jams and cakes and breads locked away in acrylic display boxes, each one with a single piece missing, were all standard fare. (Jeff wants to enter his zucchini bread next year!) Other random oddities, like the guy with the snake, and a kid in a hot air balloon basket demonstrating his flaming apparatus to a small crowd, rounded out the offerings. And of course there was a cornstalk labyrinth, the “Amazing Maize Maze,” which sounds funny no matter who says it. (What happens if the kids can’t find their way out? I imagined little skeletons scattered around the maze at harvest time.)

I was disappointed to have missed the pig races. Watching those little frenzied curly tails bobbing around the track was always a favorite part of my own home town’s annual fair.

The frog jumping sounded promising, too. I was imagining something out of Mark Twain, but the emcee frustrated much of his audience, including me, by dragging the show out to exhaustive lengths (much like this blog post) before actually pulling any frogs out of his buckets. All I saw in the time I waited around was a tree frog peeing repeatedly on some poor little girl’s hand.

And maybe that’s the best place to close. I’m glad to have seen the Queens County Fair. It was precious. I am amazed that such a thing can still exist at all. And at the end of the day, I guess, we wash the animal excretions off our hands and return to our city, leaving the farm behind us.

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