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Photo: Amy Halloran

Blue-Ribbon Bounty

Celebrating homegrown and homemade foods at the Schaghticoke Fair, a nearly-200-year-old tradition

By Amy Halloran

On a Wednesday morning before the Schaghticoke Fair officially begins at noon, three boys on bikes ride on paved paths, looking like an ad for childhood. The place is a quiet buzz of final preparations. Fair staff in fluorescent shirts whiz along in golf carts. A box truck from the Glens Falls Produce Company brings food to concession stands. The buildings that hold the displays have most of their doors shut, with one open to allow exhibitors to bring in materials. The animals are in their barns, and the campers that farmers call home for fair week are set up nearby.

Inside the Family Living Center and School Display building, the final judging is underway. John Huth from the Men’s Garden Club—a national organization that has female members, too—is assessing the fruits and vegetables entered in this year’s competition. Huth props up some pears to compare them. Apples, pears and peaches are arranged in groups of five on plates on two tables. He’s checking for blemishes, uniformity of size, and trueness to type.

“In other words, you get picky when you’re judging,” he laughs.

Anne Grab staples the ribbons to the winners. She’s been helping with the fair for days already, accepting entries as kids and adults bring them in. All of the fruit, she says, are from two men from Kristy’s Barn, competing against each other. “This is their tradition. They’ve done it for years.”

Huth holds a jar of honey up to the light, examines a plate of raspberries. Both are solitary entries in their divisions and get blue ribbons not just because they stand alone, but also because they meet the standards.

The vegetables are displayed against a layer of wood chips on a tilted table. Alphabetically, the two work through the list of entries. Beans, then beets . . . Huth turns dark red beets over to inspect the roots for imperfections, pinches to check firmness.

“These peas aren’t ready yet, but getting peas in this kind of weather, that’s great!” he says.

Nearby, vegetable art is on display. A tomato creature rows a hollowed out zucchini boat. There’s a diorama of either a boxing ring or a field, with a potato man subduing a corn animal with green-bean legs. Another diorama shows a carrot couple enjoying domesticated wilderness at a campsite.

The judging of other entries, canned and baked goods, has already happened. Slices of pie and cake, cookies, and decorated cupcakes sit under netting or behind glass. Jars of pickles and jams are on shelves, almost like citizens themselves, proudly bearing ribbons.

These foods, homegrown and homemade, are testaments to old foodways that are simultaneously disappearing and experiencing a revival. While supermarkets increase the shelf space they give to processed foods, more and more people are processing their own, too. Organized groups, such as Canning Across America, and more informal ones, such as the virtual canning jams organized by the blogger Tigress, give windows into the world of home preservation.

As the vegetable judging continues, the concession stands are preparing to feed an estimated 100,000 people who will come through the fair. The Johnsonville Fire Department is heating up its grills, ready to serve hot dogs and hamburgers, and sausages with peppers and onions. A celery-scented cloud puffs out from Antonio’s clam stand. The Hoosic Valley Booster Club has dough ready to fry, and blenders ready to rattle.

Dave “The Pancake Man” Kopp is already serving all-you-can-eat pancakes for six dollars. This is his 21st year in Schaghticoke, and his homemade maple syrup, from Patrick Hill Maple Farm, is in squeeze bottles on picnic tables. Kopp probably will go through 35 gallons of syrup by Labor Day.

A man digs into a plate of four cakes and a pair of sausages. He holds out a fork and insists I try a bite. “I’ll probably have four more,” he says, “and then I’ll be set until dinner.”

The Washington County Fair invited him, Kopp says, because people said he had the best pancakes in New York State. So he just finished a week there. He does another fair week, too, in Cobleskill, serving light, flat pancakes he makes from New Hope Mills mix.

For 25 years, Warren and Marion Wells sold the New Hope Mills mixes inside the New York State Products building, along with their full line of maple products. Last year was their swan song, however, and they won’t be opposite the ice-cream bar this year. The dairy princess committee runs the stand, and farmers take turn dishing up cones and cups.

Rensselaer County’s fair is in its 191st season. There used to be two fairs, one in Schaghticoke and one in Nassau, but the fairs merged years ago. How many years? Not even the director, David Moore, can remember, and he’s been coming to the fair since he was a kid. No need to ask how long ago that was.

Competition is a big part of the fair, says Moore. The 4-H building is full of entries, and many kids have raised animals for competition and auction, which will happen the last day. By then, farmers young and old will have shown their animals.

“I think the ribbon means more to the kids than the premiums,” Moore says of the competitions. The award winners get money, in addition to ribbons. “More to the adults too. It’s a point of pride within the community.”

Back at the vegetable judging, the work continues. Grab and Huth are near the giant pumpkins, which sit on hay near a scale, where they were weighed when they were carefully delivered.

When asked if the fair encourages agriculture, Grab and Huth are enthusiastic in their responses.

“I’ve seen pumpkin growers come in here and check out what people are growing, what varieties,” says Grab. “Get ideas for displays.”

“It’s kind of a bridge between the grower and the consumer,” Huth adds.

The fair opens in an hour, and the big pumpkins and field crops—jars of rye, Ziploc bags of silage—still need ribbons. There are more than 400 entries, which is more than last year, because it was a better year for growing. Each person enters about 10 or 15 items, and those people will soon be through this building to see if there’s a ribbon on their food.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Of course we·re a co-sponsor·it·s about local stuff. And so, along with Honest Weight Food Co-op, we·re pleased to announce the Second Annual Local Harvest Festival, taking place from 1 to 6 on Sunday (Sept. 19) at Albany·s Washington Park Lake House. Enjoy a farmers-market-style event featuring local vendors, restaurants and artisans, local bands and more. Among the participants are the Beancake Company, serving akara, a Nigerian beancake; nuts from Delmar-based Our Daily Eats; Elderberry Mary·s home-grown and homemade jam; cookies from Vegan Creations (a Troy Farmers Market favorite); milk from Battenkill Valley Creamery; cheese and probiotic ice cream by Amazing Real Live Food; Catskill-based Grandpa Pete·s gourmet pasta sauce; Bettie·s Cup Cakes, and such local restaurants and businesses as Bros Tacos, New World Bistro, Casa Visco and Honest Weight Food Co-op. . . . Carney·s Tavern & Irish Pub (17 Main St., Ballston Lake) will hold its annual Halfway to St. Patrick·s Day party from 11:30 AM through the evening on Saturday (Sept. 18). The party features Irish Music by St. James Gate, Carney·s corned beef and cabbage, Reuben sandwiches, and Irish potato soup. Wear some green to offset the fall foliage. More info: 399-9926. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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