Fried Oreos and Snake Oil
An Afternoon at the State Fair
It’s been 10 years since I last ventured up the highway to Harrington to explore the slice of summertime Americana that is the Delaware State Fair. When I mentioned my desire to go, most people appeared wide-eyed, mouth ajar and forehead wrinkled. You mean you’ve been before? And you’re going back? On one of the hottest afternoons of the summer? What can I say? I like the unusual.
State and county fairs began in the mid-19th century as a celebration of community and summer’s bounty. The first was held in Syracuse, New York, in 1841. Attendees heard political speeches, viewed animal exhibits, and learned about the state’s agricultural offerings. The Kent and Sussex County Fair began in July 1920 with the purpose to promote agriculture and entertain people living in rural communities. In 1962 it was renamed the official Delaware State Fair.
While I enjoy the farm animals and the fruits and vegetables, the main reason I wanted to go was to see if Angel the Snake Girl was still performing. I’d met Angel on my last visit, lured in by a colorful sign advertising the face of a beautiful woman with the body of a snake, an oddity of nature born deep in the jungle of Borneo. Angel is what you call a classic carnival illusion sideshow. They became fixtures in early carnivals and fairs, thanks to an enterprising showman named P.T. Barnum who began exhibiting albinos, contortionists, sword swallowers, and bearded women as part of his circus.
Much to my dismay, Angel was missing, replaced by a booth promoting gutter guards. I’m honestly not surprised. Mores and tastes have changed. People today tend to satisfy their curiosities online and in private. Dr. Pimple Popper, anyone?
Just when I was thinking about cutting my losses, I came face to face with a red and yellow food truck advertising fried Oreos. Beside it was another truck selling fried pickles and colossal fried onions. I spun around and saw signs everywhere—beer battered shrimp, corn dogs, sausage, funnel cakes, French fries, tacos, and even fried bacon on a stick! My arteries began to clog. Secretly, though, I was thrilled.
I ordered a basket of fried Oreos, ignoring the large hissing and bubbling pit of amber colored grease. To my surprise, they were quite tasty. Light and fluffy and dusted with powdered sugar, they reminded me of chocolate filled beignets. Fried Oreos in hand, I ventured to the Roost, an outside bar, in an unsuccessful attempt to find a glass of champagne, which I had decided would pair nicely with my basket of sweets. I opted instead for an Orange Crush cocktail.
Mood improved, I wandered through the vegetable displays and animal barns. Most of the livestock were resting and trying to stay cool in the 100-degree heat. I stepped into the market tent to cool myself off among the barbeque grills, candles, toe rings, t-shirts, pianos, and kitchen knives for sale.
Nothing tempted me until I heard a man’s voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, step right up.” You’ve got to be kidding? I looked around and spotted a small, bald, bespectacled man waving at me. “What’s ailing you friend,” he asked. “Sciatica, high blood pressure, reflux, depression, trouble sleeping…. Just slip on one of my ion bracelets and you’ll immediately feel better. Within six months your health problems will have vanished.” Now this was interesting. And seeing as my sciatica was acting up, I decided to let things play out.
The salesman next unveiled a black and silver bracelet, a custom piece designed for a gentleman who unfortunately passed away before he could pick it up. Had he worn it he’d still be with us, the salesman claimed. I laughed, but he continued. “For a stylish fellow like yourself, I’ll give you a deal—today only—at $150. It’s cheaper than a series of appointments with a chiropractor. Safer, too.” He handed me the merchandise and I held it up, examined it, and slipped it on my wrist. “Now that looks good,” he exclaimed. I made a sucking sound, waited a minute, then looked him in the eye and offered $125.
At the end of the afternoon, I didn’t get to see Angel the Snake Girl, but I got to experience fried Oreos and a modern-day snake oil salesman, a classic figure right out of an early 20th century American fair who sold me a sure-fire cure for my sciatica. What more could you want from a state fair? ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.