When I was growing up in the 1930s-40s, the fairground was a fun place to go with the family in the summer and fairground food was cotton candy, fried fish sandwiches, taffy apples and ice cream candy. When my father was growing up in the 1920s, a fairground was his home for much of the year. My grandfather was a blacksmith and horseshoeing was his trade…
My grandfather and my father, ca 1914
He took his business on the road during the county fair season and his large family came along.
Grandma Lillian, Annie, Frank, a neighbor, my father – Johnny
My grandmother (the original Lillian) did the laundry in a washtub outside the barn…
…and cooked the family meals on whatever kind of stove she could rig up. My father brought along the memories of fairground meals when he married my mother in 1932.
I still make these two dishes today at age 77.
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 2 Tblsp. vegetable oil
- 1 cup milk
In a small bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the oil and milk, mixing well. Cook on a hot griddle until bubbles form on the surface. Flip and continue cooking on the reverse side. Serve hot with butter and syrup.
This makes six 4″ pancakes or as my father would have made them, two large griddle-sized flapjacks.
My father would have used bacon drippings or lard instead of oil and the milk would have been diluted evaporated milk. He made syrup by mixing the right ratio of dark brown sugar and water (which I’ve never perfected) and boiling until of syrup consistency. And the meal would not have been complete for my father unless there were two sunny-side-up eggs on top of the pancakes, everything liberally sprinkled with black pepper.
My oldest daughter and I always have a pancake and egg breakfast, called our Fairground Breakfast, before we start out on a long trip. It’s sure to hold us until lunchtime.
Another of my father’s fairground favorites was his chili.
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 large can of kidney beans
- 1 medium can of tomato puree
- Water to fill one kidney bean can and one puree can
- 1/2 to 1 tsp. salt
- Grating of black pepper
In a large pot, brown the ground beef and onion until no pink shows in the meat and the onion is tender. Add the kidney beans, puree and water from the two cans. Simmer on the stove for at least one hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot – 4 servings.
My father liked his chili with lots of chili powder and saltine crackers. He usually broke the crackers up in the chili. One of the favorite aromas of my childhood was of beef and onions frying in preparation for chili.
I continued to take my children (and now my grandchildren) to county fairs. Back in the 1960s, I took my three young children to the Owensville (Clermont County, Ohio) fair and stopped in a trailer parked on the fairgrounds to visit my father’s cousin and his very large family. Bill was also a blacksmith and hauled his family around the fair circuit to make a living. Inside the small trailer, 5 or 6 little kids were seated at a table and Bill’s wife, Mary, was at the stove frying mush in a big cast iron skillet. She would slice the mush, throw it into the hot grease, flip it and then put it on one of the kids’ plates. For the 15 or 20 minutes we were there, she never stopped flipping and serving slices of hot mush – there was always an empty plate and a hungry child yelling for more. She invited us to have some, but we said no thanks and left her there to feed her kids.
So, when you hear the term, “Fairground Food”, it’s not always an expensive treat out on the midway – it could very well be somebody’s favorite meal.