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The State Fair of Texas: Bigger Than Ever

More people attend this fair than any other — so y'all come on down!

By Sophia Dembling | September 28, 2012
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Sophia Dembling is a freelance writer who specializes in travel stories.

In Dallas, signs of the approaching State Fair of Texas, like harbingers of autumn, are unmistakable.

First I start spotting newspaper stories about food competitions, with photos of the winning entries. These are followed by indignant letters to the editor blaming the obesity crisis on Fried S’mores (yum), Fried Butter and Fried Bacon Cinnamon Rolls (yeah, that’s what I said), which won Most Creative new food this year (last year's winner in this category was Fried Bubblegum).

Then there are the photos of Big Tex being assembled, his head (in a 75-gallon cowboy hat) happily disconnected from his body as workmen spruce up his gigantic (31-foot chest) Western shirt and enormous (23.5-foot waist) jeans. The 52-foot-tall cowboy/icon celebrates his 60th birthday this year. This boomer is in great shape.

But the best moment of all, the one that makes my heart soar, is the first time I see the Texas Star, the 212-foot Ferris wheel, on the horizon, illuminated and turning.

The fair! The fair! It’s time for the fair! (It opens this Friday, Sept. 28, and runs through Oct. 21. Hours vary).

(More: Road Trip: 3 Art Outposts Paint a New Picture of the South)

A Fair to Remember: Why I Go Every Year

I moved to Dallas in 1982 and since then, have missed the fair only one year, though I can’t recall why. I must have had a very good reason, because the fair is a highlight of my year, ushering in fall, cooler temperatures (if we’re lucky), and a generally joyous, fattening, sticky good time. My husband, who moved to Dallas as a teenager, had never been to the fair until I dragged him twentysomething years ago and now he anticipates it as eagerly as I do. Some years we go more than once.

Over the years, our fair experience has become all but ritualized, though we are open to serendipity, too. And there’s always something new and interesting to see. This year, a Chinese Lantern Festival promises a “110-yard-long dragon made from 15,000 porcelain dishes tied together by hand.” So, sure. We’ll check that out. Some years, though, we might plan around one of the larger acts that appear; American Idol’s Kellie Pickler and soul stalwarts the Commodores are on this year’s entertainment schedule.

Admission to the fair is $16, $12 for people over 60 and children, and free for children under 2. But Tom and I always try to catch one of the discount days. The best this year: three cans of food for the North Texas Food Bank gets you a $2 admission every Wednesday. Thursdays are free if you're over 60.

The ticket takers are always smiling and happy, providing a friendly portal to the magic. And the fairgrounds are a treat themselves. Fair Park is the largest collection of Art Deco fair architecture in the country. Underutilized all year round, the buildings, pools and fountains are stars for three weeks a year.

My Favorite Things, Texas-Style

First things first: we buy coupons for food and grab a schedule from one of the information booths. Then we officially launch our fair day with a Fletcher’s corny dog (it’s not a “corn dog,” so don’t even think it) slathered in mustard, eaten in the shadow of Big Tex, to hear his slooooowly drawled welcoming “Howwwwdy, folks.” (Oh, and if you’re meeting friends at the fair, you meet at Big Tex. That’s just how it’s done.)

Meanwhile, we plot our day. First, what time should we catch the Birds of the World Show? We never miss this free-flying bird act. After sitting through the show annually for years, we know all the shtick by heart — although, of course, when it comes to critters, anything can happen and usually does. And while there are lots of annual appearances by beloved birds, new feathered faces often debut, too. (A 2010 tribute video to longtime star Victoria the African fish eagle, gone to the big aerie in the sky, made me cry. For real.) Here’s Sluggo the seriema smashing Mr. Bill, the rubber alligator, to the ground! Here’s Groucho the parrot singing "Camptown Races!" And the highlight of the show is when a Harris hawk, released from a gondola at the top of the Texas Star, swoops down over the audience to a perch on the stage. Oh gosh, it’s swell.

We might pop into other animal shows too. Maybe the Amazing Dobermans shows. Or the pig races. The livestock judgings are always too early in the day for us, but we’ll often stop by the Cattle Barn or Swine Building to see who’s hanging around. Sometimes it’s bunnies, sometimes llamas, sometime cattle or goats. The surprise is the fun part.

Come Hungry, Go Home Stuffed

OK, then. The corny dogs were just an appetizer. I usually like to sample one of the year’s winning foods. Maybe that Fried Bacon Cinnamon Roll this year. We usually manage a bratwurst from the Hans Mueller tent. Or make like Fred Flintstone and gnaw at an enormous smoked turkey leg. At the fair a caramel apple counts as health food. And for dessert, funnel cake. Always funnel cake, and always from the Dock in the Embarcadero Building. (By the way, the cheapest beer is in the Food Court, in the Tower Building.) For take-home treats, we stop into the Food and Fiber Pavilion, where a store sells all Texas-made products. Maybe jalapeno beef jerky sticks. Or chipotle seasoning. Or sugar and cinnamon coated pecans.

A Blue-Ribbon Day

The Creative Arts competition displays are a jolly hodgepodge of the sublime, the adorable and the whaaaat. Quilts and sock monkeys, photos and doll clothes, collections and contraptions, knit sweaters and crocheted toilet paper covers and so much more. Someday I’ll enter something. My life might not be complete without a ribbon from the fair. And here’s also where you’ll find the butter sculpture.

Before the Parade Passes By

We do a little shopping, we do a lot of people watching (everybody comes to the fair — all ages, colors, sizes, all degrees of hipness and fabulocity). We take a spin through the car show, listen to some music (country band Lantana and Celtic rockers The Killdares are regulars) and we stroll through the flashing lights, barking barkers and blaring music of the Midway (though neither of us “do” rides), perhaps pausing to watch the daredevil BMX bike show. As evening settles in, we find a spot to watch the Starlight Parade, which starts at 7:15 each night. The Marine Drum and Bugle Corps at the head of the parade is the best part, followed by the float with a band of Shriners rockin’ out.

If we have any energy left, we might pause to watch the sound and light show over the 700-foot Esplanade reflecting pool on our way out. But by that time, we’re usually exhausted, our feet hurt and and we’re coated in a fine glazing of grease and sugar.

Which means we did the fair right.
 
P.S.  I will be deprived of a very special seasonal moment when a year-round amusement park opens on the fairgrounds, possibly in spring 2013. Then the Texas Star will turn all year.