“Urban” is pretty much the only word you would use to describe the neighbourhood I live in. Filled with 24 hour conveniences and a finite amount of available real estate; I am much more likely to encounter falafel shops with quesitonable food standards and discarded injection needles on a morning run than a single, solitary tree. While my lungs are slowly adjusting to the daily berating of smog and rotting garbage, this has been a difficult transition for someone who hails from a province known as “Canada’s Ocean Playground”; where the overabundance of fresh air and open space border on irritating.
That’s why, when I recently overheard a friend discussing her plans to attend something called the “Royal Agricultural Winter Fair” the following weekend, my interest was piqued. “Um excuse me??” I asked, barely containing my enthusiasm, “Did I just hear ‘Agricultural’ and ‘Toronto’ in the same sentence??”
Indeed- my ears had not been failing me. She went on to describe what sounded like the most magical place on earth. Taking place in a large indoor stadium, the fair plays host to farmers; animal breeders; cheese makers and other such tradespeople from all over the country. There are equestrian shows, a “super dog” competition, giant vegetable exhibits… even a butter sculpture contest.
My words struggled to keep pace with my brain as the questions flew out of my mouth like expletives. Just who were these “Superdogs”?? Were they bred specifically for this event? Or was this some sort of circuit for retired Westminister champions- the dog equivalent of Stars on Ice for olympic gold medal figure skaters. And don’t even get me started on the butter sculptures. Were they carved from a single block of butter? Or fashioned out of those fancy little balls of butter you get at catered lunches? I needed answers.
“Please take me with you”, I begged her.
She generously obliged, and plans were set in place for the following Sunday.
The slogan for the fair is “Bringing the Country to the City“; and this became immediately apparent as we walked into the stadium. It was like entering a parallel universe. Sure there were humans here- but these humans wore cowboy hats and leather jackets, as opposed to business suits and Louis Vuitton bags. The smell of manure, commingled with popcorn and beavertails filled my nostrils, and like a bad drug, left me wanting more. We decided that our first stop would be the Goat show.
That’s right… the Goat Show. If Christopher Guest had decided to go just 25% more obscure- I’m pretty sure this is what he would have come up with. We watched in excited ignorance as school-aged children led their goats around the arena and answered skill testing questions, as the commentator spoke of “separating the grain from the shaft” and “the art of the good goatsman”. It was difficult for laymen such as ourselves to discern what the judging criteria might possibly be- Coat? Stride? Bleating? Or lack thereof? Definitely something about the bleating. Anyway, I felt my heart swell with pride when contestant number three, who had travelled all the way from small town New Brunswick to compete, took home the grand prize, and we all whooped and cheered as though we had bet our own respective farms on the outcome of the competition.
After that, the hits just kept on coming. There was the misshapen vegetable competition:
…. the perfect vegetable competition:
Some blue ribbon lentils and preserves:
A cattle show..
A clydesdale show….
A petting zoo….
Some delicious food and beautiful antiques…
and finally, la piece de resistance: The Butter Sculptures.
At last, my curiosity had been satiated. If you’re wondering, they use sticks of butter to create these masterpieces- Gay Lea butter to be exact- also known as one of the corporate sponsors of the event. I pushed this little detail to the side, and instead focused on the incredibleness, and unpredictability of the designs. I mean- the pig, I get. Obviously it makes sense to pay homage to a farm animal at an agricultural fair… but what’s with the postapocalyptic looking trees? I feel like the sculptor was spending too much time reading Cormac McCarthy and not enough time watching Little House on the Prairie while preparing for this event.
Anyhow, we moved on and looked at a number of other exhibits for the next few hours, finishing with the collection of vintage books and newspapers (at which I scored a $3 copy of “The Canadian Countryman” from 1939 … WIN). We then proceeded to collapse on some antique soap boxes, and reflect on our day whilst passing around a bag of organic chocolate covered almonds. Topics ranged from whether we preferred “cow people” to “horse people” ; and if cowboy hats were a sexy male accessory; to why, at an event based around an immense love for animals, it was impossible to find a vegetarian lunch option.
There were a few things, however, that we all agreed upon:
- The time you spend outfit planning for such an event might as well be chalked up to a loss, because, as it happens, livestock are not a particularly discerning creature when it comes to fashion.
- Agriculturally minded folk are an extremely kind, and generous group of people. We spent so much time at each booth and exhibit- talking to cheesemakers about the plight of the Guernsey; truffle makers about their hand rolling processes. Almost everyone we encountered were warm and inviting; and eager to share their stories with us city slickers.
- The world really does take all kinds. I’ll be honest, I sort of expected to find this whole thing amusing; to mercilessly poke fun at all of the things I saw and did. But instead, I found myself admiring these amazing individuals, and wondering about the types of lives they led. I saw people doing things I could never dream of being capable of, and realized that the world is a lot bigger than the corporate bubble I currently live in.
- This was an incredibly humanizing experience. Too often we go through our day-to-day lives, and don’t think about the bigger picture… the process involved in getting the foods we eat and the things we consume to our tables; the people working behind the scenes to make our lives richer, and more comfortable. For me, the Agricultural Fair brought all of that to the forefront, and gave me a renewed appreciation for these things we take for granted.
- Goats are seriously underrated:
Question of the Day: Have you enjoyed anything lately that surprised you?
And P.S. for those of you who may be so inclined- The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is taking place at Exhibition Place in Toronto through until November 13. http://royalfair.org