I am going to say something today that you might dismiss as ridiculous hyperbole, but I promise you that I say it with utmost sincerity:
There are few events in life as entertaining for a European as the Florida State Fair.
Six years ago, on a whim, Scrubs and I parked our rental car in front of the Tampa fairground and hopped out with entirely average levels of excitement. We bought our tickets, pushed open the gate, and ambled in. I was hoping for a small petting zoo and maybe a few stalls selling candy floss (or ‘cotton candy‘), while Scrubs was hoping for a speedy lap of the fairground and a quick getaway before I had a chance to kidnap a pygmy goat.
What we hadn’t even dreamed to hope for or expect were the hours of entertainment we managed to buy for a mere $12 each. From the moment we walked in and looked around at the first aisle of stalls, we knew that this would be one of the high points of our trip. In Europe, there is a common negative stereotype of Americans that is… unflattering, to say the least. You’ve probably come across it before; Americans are expected to be loud and not particularly bright, with a love for the star-spangled banner that borders on the fanatical, an enormous appetite for junk food and an enthusiasm for supersizing everything whenever possible.
Although on our travels we had periodically come across certain people or places that had tipped their hat to these stereotypes (the same as in any country, really), the Florida State Fair was the first and last place we visited that managed to fit all of these into a 300 acre space.
Food stalls with multiple options greeted us as we walked in. They offered everything – and I mean everything – on a stick. I am not sure why Floridians believe food is immediately made immeasurably better if it’s on a stick, all I can say is that they seem to believe it fervently.
We walked past these stalls with our mouths agape. Monstrosities that must have been conceived in the depths of hell screamed at us from brightly coloured billboards.
Everywhere we looked, people were eating indescribable (yet presumably edible) foodthings with great relish. Our eyes as wide as saucers, we eventually made it past the food stalls to the agricultural shed, where I found the pygmy goats, as expected… and cattle. Cattle with enormous horns that looked downright uncomfortable. I’m not sure these bulls were fully on board with the whole bigger-is-better mindset.
At least I understood why the cattle were there though. We passed the pygmy goats and cattle and pigs and sheep, and suddenly came across a kangaroo.
Kangaroos, as far as I can tell, are not native to Florida.
We kept walking and came across a giraffe. A giraffe! Giraffes are definitely not endemic to Florida! He looked extremely out of place. I stopped to give him a carrot.
As we left the menagerie and continued on our way, we stopped for some grilled corn on the cob (not on a stick) and discussed the peculiarity of seeing African and Australian land mammals at a fair that was supposed to celebrate the best of the state of Florida. Little did we know, however, that the most peculiar was yet to come. We rounded the corner only to find a collection of brightly coloured tents festooned with hand-painted signs that stopped us dead in our tracks.
I feel I should explain here that my only experience with side-show attractions is what I’ve read about in slightly-problematic children’s books. Up until I saw these tents, I honestly, truly, hand-on-heart believed them to be something that had died out with the arrival of political correctness. As far as I know, “freak shows*” are not a thing in Europe – certainly, they’re not a thing in Ireland – so I probably stood and stared for far longer than is strictly polite when I realised what exactly I was looking at.
I moved from tent to tent, astonished, as people queued up, paid, and wandered inside as if this were a perfectly normal activity for a sunny afternoon. The curiosity burned inside of me as I tried to decide whether it was ethically justifiable to pay to see “wild little aboriginies” or a “snake child” if you suspected they might only be animatronic dolls. They couldn’t possibly be real people… Right? In the end, my conscience won out of over my curiosity and I left the area of colourful tents feeling an uncomfortable mixture of intrigue and disgust.
We reached the rides (by far the least interesting part of the entire fair), cast an eye over the monster trucks (of course), and then I looked to my left and saw it, shining like a beacon of hope in this desolate land.
The holy grail. The most “American” thing I have ever seen in my entire life.
Obviously, it had to be done.
After weighing up the pros and cons of the menu (Pro: curiosity would be satisfied. Con: swift and premature death from coronary artery disease), we queued up and ordered two deep-fried butters and two deep-fried oreos. A short but surprising conversation with the nice man at the window proved unexpectedly illuminating when he told us that deep-fried butter was his bestseller. In fact, his nephew had given up his high-paying job in IT to run a deep-fried butter stall because it was more profitable. Both impressed and appalled, we retreated to a quiet spot with our deep-fried cholesterol grenades and examined them closely. In my excitement, I didn’t bother to focus my camera and as a result the photos are a blurry mess, but this is what they looked like on the outside.
I wolfed mine down in quick succession and then remembered I had meant to take a photo for posterity, so I asked Scrubs to take a bite out of each and then allow me to photograph them.
…Which he did, because he has the patience of a saint.
The one on top is the deep-fried butter, while the other is the deep-fried oreo. If you’re shaking your head in disgust right now or making an extremely unimpressed face, I can only say that you know not what you do. Much as I would like to scoff at the very idea of deep-fried butter, the unfortunate and inconvenient truth is that it was absolutely delicious. As best I can tell, they roll a knob of butter in sugar and cinnamon before freezing it, and then deep-fry the frozen blob of unhealthiness to create something that looks truly rank but tastes like melted heaven.
The deep-fried oreo, by comparison, tasted dry and bland.
Tired out from feeling like time-travellers exploring a strange land, we stopped for some candy floss on our way back to the real world. We also stopped to marvel at sandcastles, sculptures made from butter, stitched fabric and wonderful quilts. We eyed the funnel cakes and corn dogs suspiciously, and finally made it back to the car. We left the car park feeling the aftereffects of profound culture shock.
If you have the opportunity to visit this wormhole in the fabric of time, please go. It is unlike anything else you will ever experience. Wave a tiny American flag. Marvel at the sideshow stalls. Eat some deep-fried butter.
… and then maybe get your cholesterol checked, because I did and it was sky high.
Some say I still have high cholesterol** to this day.
*Apparently the use of the word ‘freak’ is considered correct now?
**I actually do although I don’t think I can honestly still blame the deep-fried butter….