Deep-Fried DNA

After 120 years, the OC Fair is still around. There’s a reason.

Lands_EndPublished July 2010

This is a land of many marvels. Take the OC Fair.

How is it still here? It’s 120 years old, you can’t surf it, and it has no Nordstrom. Its notion of cuisine is beer and deep-fried Twinkies. It casts blue-ribbon livestock before audiences that wouldn’t know a champion Guernsey if one showed up in Nikes at 24 Hour Fitness. And great swaths of it appear to have wandered off-course en route to someone else’s county—the funnel cakes, the freak produce, that 3-D movie last year about the brain of “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Every summer, inquiring minds wonder how a county fair is still thriving in a major metropolitan area with almost no remaining agriculture. Short of dunking Weird Al in hot Crisco, it’s hard to come up with a fairlike attraction that already isn’t available here year-round at some theme park, concert hall, farmers market, or mall.  And yet, every summer, about a million fairgoers happily line up as if they’d never seen corn, or had themselves strapped into a Tilt-A-Whirl by a sweating, wall-eyed carny. In fact, because it has been in the headlines, way more than a million are likely to show up for the 2010 OC Fair, which opens this month.

Maybe it’s our capacity for mass leisure. Parades of rich drunks on Christmas boats, live re-enactments of “The Last Supper,” snipe hunting—you name it, we’ll come. But part, too, may be that agriculture and livestock simply remain in our DNA, like the bits of Neanderthal that still float around in the genes of Europeans. Orange County was born on ranchos and weaned on citrus; maybe our genome is still shot through with tiny aggies and cowpokes. In any case, the power of the fair compels us. We love it with an improbable passion, the way babies love Barney and boomers love “Bonanza” reruns.

We love it even though nice, clean Disneyland is just up the freeway, even though we moved here specifically so we would not have to brush up against icky crowds. Believe it or not, while other fairs are cutting back, the OC Fair makes money. Whoever we are now, we have come from fair people, and so into the great, trudging, fleshy river of fair-going humanity we return.

And marvel: old people, young people, tall people, fat people. People with matching T-shirts from church camp, and people with matching gang tattoos. People with corndogs in one hand and iPhones in the other. People who swore they were not going to be suckered again this year into trying to win the plush turtle, or paying to see the World’s Biggest Horse, and yet look right where they’re heading. People who swore that they were done with fairs altogether, and yet—inexplicably—here I am.

The OC Fair is news this summer. Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put the Costa Mesa fairgrounds up for auction as part of a plan to fix the California budget by selling state land. The first round of bidders replied with a slew of craven lowballs, but the attempt galvanized locals. Overnight, we realized that some might view the 150-acre site not as the home of an institution, but as a sweet hunk of developable real estate in a buyer’s market. Though the OC Fair has had several homes in its time—and Irvine’s Great Park awaits, if needed—the outcry was loud enough to knock the World’s Biggest Horse back on his haunches, at least for now.

But I suspect the OC Fair will abide, no matter who ends up with the real estate. It offers a deep-fried whiff of a local commodity that’s scarce: history. The fair says that, once upon a time, we worked the land instead of speculating on it. It says Ferris wheels weren’t always something you could see any day at the Irvine Spectrum. It says that Orange County hasn’t forgotten the working classes who built it. We value that, even here. Even if, by “history,” we mostly mean “nostalgia.”

And that is a marvel, old-fashioned though it may be.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

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