Twenty-three-year-old Cathy was kind of a bitch about the Florida State Fair.
Florida State Fair
$9, plus rides (armbands, $20-$30). Feb. 4-16. Florida State Fairgrounds – 4800 US Hwy. 301 North, Tampa. 1-800-345-FAIR. floridastatefair.com.
It wasn’t her fault, not entirely. The country music station WQYK had a lot to do with it, although, really, it comes down to Cathy being way too immature to appreciate the finer things.
Finer things? At the Florida State Fair, where if you can eat it, you can deep fry it?
To explain, let’s go back to WQYK and the 23-year-old me. Fresh out of college, I’d landed myself a job producing the 7 p.m.-midnight show on the station. This involved answering phones, pulling music and commercials, and trying not to piss off the talent. From time to time, it also involved attending certain events, such as the fair, where, for $6 an hour, I would sit in a stagecoach underneath the WQYK banner. I would give people pens and listen to them tell me how much they loved my boss, Tom Rivers, and the station.
I love WQYK, I do, but 20 years ago some of its listeners had some, ahem, rough edges. Which I witnessed. Trapped in a stagecoach. On cold, windy February days for over 12 hours at a time. For about $84 a day. It makes one rethink one’s life choices. I quit a few months later and swore, à la Vivien Leigh, that with god as my witness, I’d never attend that hillbilly hell again.
Fast forward to me, mid-30s, freelance writer. I get assigned a “let’s go to the fair” piece. I go, expecting toothless rednecks with never-seen-a-cow cowboy boots and “don’t get dirt in my” pickup trucks. I learn, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, how fucking wrong it is to judge Florida based on a few Florida Man news pieces and a singular stagecoach-laden experience.
So, how did I fall in love with the fair? It wasn’t hard, really. It was more a matter of pentetrating the fair’s own PR, which encourages you to eat all the things and ride all the rides. Here’s a tip: Stay off the damn midway. It’s a Faces of Death
movie waiting to happen. The food? Meh. Sure, try a deep-fried pinot noir if you’d like (if they don’t have one, they should), but the real treasures of the fair? They date back to the reason we have this under-appreciated, over-celebrated festival of Florida.
You heard me. It’s a festival of Florida. If you live in Florida for any other reason than you can’t afford the gas to move north (and if that’s the case, come see me and I’ll Kickstart you the money), you need to go the fair to understand your state. Not the memes and the Florida Man bullshit and the kooky way the media thinks we’re a bunch of alligator-tossing flakka-taking hillbillies, but the Florida waiting for you underneath all that. The Florida State Fair celebrates all the tremendous things about this glorious, swampy, sand-soaked state, and if you don’t stray from the midway, you’ll never see it. It’s like driving across the state on the Interstate instead of taking the back roads: You’ve visited the state, but you haven’t experienced it.
Part of the fair’s delight comes in the form of exploration and discovery, from walking into the Charlie Lykes Arena, the goat tent and the Florida Living Center. It comes from walking into the Florida Fish and Wildlife building and asking the rangers what they think about last year’s black bear hunt. While we want to encourage you to do a bit of that, if you’re as skeptical as some of my coworkers about why the fair rocks, you may need a guide to get you started.
Bearing that in mind, here’s the shortlist of why you need to visit the Florida State Fair, and what you need to do once you’re there.
. If you think all chickens look the same, run, don’t walk, to the poultry exhibit, where you’ll find a cornucopia of chickens that look like something from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Look for the “Fancy” poultry, because that’s what they’re called and also, these chickens are fancy. Seriously, better coifs than Jennifer Aniston in the mid-’90s. Bonus: The incubator at the entrance lets you watch eggs hatch. Adorbs. Daily
. Florida does citrus and berries better than any other state. That’s right, California, we’re talking to you. On Feb. 8, the fair celebrates citrus. Read Kate Bradshaw’s article on why the Florida orange industry could be gasping its last
and then head over to the citrus display. Bonus: On Feb. 7., the Rare Fruits Council will offer a Tropical Fruit Tasting (Florida Living Center), and if you duck into the Agriculture Hall of Fame you can taste fresh Florida strawberries and citrus throughout the fair.
. OK, so they won’t have dead people — at least, not intentionally — but do you watch Bones
? Turns out all the stuff Hodgins says about bugs? It’s true, and you can see for yourself at the Fresh From Florida Insect Encounter in the Ag Hall of Fame. Daily.
. Check out the Jack Russell Terrier races (Sat., Feb. 6) and dog agility shows throughout the fair, then go home and tell your dog she isn’t pulling her weight.
. Fish or art? Um, both. Go to the Florida Center and look for something called “The Aquaculture Competition.” What you’ll find are fish tanks pimped beyond belief. Entrees from years past have included a tank emulating the dystopia of the German expressionist film Metropolis
, a South Pacific-themed tank (complete with an erupting volcano) and, of course, tanks recreating coral reefs, rainforests and sunken temples.
. They’re not self-aware... yet. The fair’s hosting this year’s state championship. Teams of students (elementary through high school) design and build robots in a game-based environment. On the last day of the competition, get a hands-on demonstration of upper-level robots. Feb. 13, 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Feb. 14, 12-6:30 p.m.; and Feb. 15, 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
Hollywood Racing Pigs
. Look, this is plain old fun to watch. Think of it as a living bacon exhibit, and may the fastest sausage win. Daily at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6:30 p.m.; near the South Dome.
Cavies and bunnies
. Science classifies cavies as rodents. In polite society, we call them guinea pigs, thank you very much. Come see the best bunnies and guinea pigs in Florida at the cavy judging contest (9 a.m.), then stick around for the bunny judging — trust me, these are not your garden-variety bunnies — at 1 p.m. February 13, Charlie Lykes Arena.
Llama Obstacle Course
. In between the guinea pigs and bunny judging, watch llamas (trained by Florida teens) run — or whatever it is llamas do — obstacle courses and compete in performance tests. Feb. 13, noon.
. Do you call yourself an environmentalist? Then get to the livestock shows and learn how Florida livestock can help you reduce your carbon footprint. Florida is the ninth largest cattle-producing state in the country, and the fair showcases the best of Florida cattle, including Angus, Brahmin, zebu, and Santa Gerturdis. Go see these creatures up close, along with goats, pigs, and other Florida livestock. Daily.
. If you eat organic fruits and veggies, you can learn more about how to prepare them at the fair. On Feb. 6, the Florida Learning Center will have an organic cooking demonstration from 1-3 p.m.
Feed butterflies, including monarchs, swallowtail and painted ladies. 10 am.-6 p.m., daily.
. Forget Iowa and Trump and email scandals — just for a few minutes — and head to Florida Center West. Instead of caucuses you’ll find dresses worn by first ladies, and china used in the White House. Walk among replicas of some of the best-known White House iconry, like the Oval Office or the podium used by President Obama during press conferences. Go ahead, take that selfie of yourself addressing the media or dining at a State Dinner. Daily.
That’s just scratching the surface of the off-the-midway, not-even-a-little-deep-fried Florida State Fair experience. Will there be pickup trucks? Of course there will be. You cannot pull a trailer full of cows in a Honda Element, people. Will there be rednecks? Most definitely. But before you sneer and make a joke, think long and hard about how serious you are about eating local, because odds are, there’s a “redneck” making it happen.
As for the drunk guys with three teeth just itching to be the next Florida Man Tweet? You’ll find him on the midway, eating an ice cream hamburger, and you want to know a little secret?
He’s not from here. He’s from Ohio.
If you had told 23-year-old Cathy that 43-year-old Cathy would ever write an homage to the Florida State Fair, 23-year-old Cathy would have thrown her coffee (23-year-old Cathy always had coffee) in your face, stomped out her Virginia SuperSlims menthol cigarette with her Nine West “Kimmy” stacked-heel penny loafer, sneered a little and walked away.