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County fair’s character changes with the times

Is nothing sacred? The lead story in The Union on August 8 was startling, even shocking: “End of an era? Only one entry in pastie contest.”

Most of America wouldn’t have grasped the headline without a context to put it in, but Nevada County residents understood the headline (and its implications) immediately.

For those of you who live in that vague region known as The Rest of The World, the context is that it’s Nevada County Fair time, and the fair has contests for the best pies, cakes, wines, microbrews, and just about everything. However, among the food entries, the pastie has become an endangered species. There was just one entry this year.



As everyone who passed the entrance exam to live here knows, the pastie is the traditional meat-filled (or vegetable-filled or potato-filled) pastry eaten by Cornish miners who came here to dig gold out of the rock. We still sell ’em to tourists (who call them “paysties”), and buy them ourselves in the specialty shops and markets.

The pastie lacks the cachet of seared ahi tuna with arugula. It ain’t sushi, brother. It’s just basic food a miner can heat with a candle under a tin lunchbox. So when interest in the pastie competition flags, it makes you wonder if we’re losing our roots. If that happens, then this place becomes just another place to live.




The decline of the pastie is troubling, but let’s not panic. As long as there have been fairs, there have been goods to trade, food to eat, and entertainments to enjoy. Fairs evolve to accommodate what people are interested in.

People have been going to fairs to trade as long as there have been people. Easton’s Bible Dictionary (online) says “Fairs: (Heb’izabhonim) [is] found seven times in (Ezekiel 27:1).” Ezekiel points out that trade at the fairs included silver, iron, tin, lead, the persons of men, vessels of brass, horses, horsemen, mules, emeralds, purple, [em]broidered work, linen, coral, and agate. We don’t see these items anymore, except maybe jewelry.

By the time Dagobert, King of the Franks, chartered the St. Denis fair in 629 AD, the goods and entertainments had changed. I bet there were archery contests at that fair.

Today, the fair’s goods and entertainments have changed, but the concept is much the same. You can buy reclining chairs, pellet woodstoves, cookware, and machines that slice and dice. As in Biblical and Medieval times, the goods at the fair are (presumably) the goods we need.

Does anyone miss that great carnival giveaway, the Kewpie doll? Probably not. Named after Cupid, they were first pictured in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1909, drawn by Rose O’Neill. They became quite a fad, evolving to become paper dolls, stuffed dolls, bisque dolls, etc., and are now quite collectable. But you won’t find them given as prizes at the Butler Amusements midway. They’ve been replaced by velour snakes and big plastic inflatable hammers.

It’s only natural that the commercial goods, prizes, souvenirs, and even Treat Street foods evolve (although, mercifully, there is no raw “veggie” vendor). Even the community booths (for service agencies, political parties, religions, and local causes) evolve, and I think we have many more of them now than in the past.

In the competitions, it shouldn’t be a surprise if the home crafts, hobby, and agriculture categories change over time. For example, digital photography is a new departure from traditional photography. Of course, it can be a great comfort if some things don’t change. There are still categories for horses, cattle, chicken, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, sheep, swine, and goats. We still judge pies.

Despite all this talk about evolution, I’m still uncomfortable when we talk about the poor vanishing pastie. There is danger when the core elements of a county fair start to disappear. Consider that we no longer have exhibits or demonstrations about gold mining or logging. If the pastie vanishes from the scene, can the pies and ag competitions be far behind? I hope the quilts are the last to go.

The concern is that we could eventually lose the events and exhibits that define our county fair. Then the fair will be superfluous, looking a lot like a cheap swap meet. And that’s not good for us as a community.

Barry Schoenborn is a technical writer, and a 14-year resident of Nevada County. His column appears the second Saturday of the month.


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