Just before 10 a.m. on opening day, the livestock pens, fried food booths and motionless carnival rides staked in the grounds of the 148th annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Show and Fair were unpeopled and peaceful in the last minutes before the gates opened to a zealous huddle of fairgoers eager to be among the first to sample the spectacles awaiting inside.
Once inside, children momentarily escaped their parents’ watch for a plunge down the sky-high slide or a climb up the towering rock wall, and kids of all ages rushed to mount the freshly painted rides for a whirl through the breeze as a reprieve from the sticky August heat.
Elsewhere on the grounds, spectators watched teamsters navigate pairs of wiggly-eared oxen in the ox show and pull. On a woodchip covered racetrack nearby, families battled for the best views of the Robinson’s Racing Pigs show where six-month-old black-skinned piglets enjoyed Oreo cookies in reward for entering a caged starting gate. At the ring of a bell, the pigs, with names like Jerry Swinefeld, Elvis Pigsly, Monica Squealinsky and George W. Bushhog scampered around the track and swam through a treadmill lap-pool-sized watering hole.
“This is what happens if you don’t get A’s,” first-time pig race spectator Ray Guasp of Bristol, Conn. said, cupping a palm over his 11-year-old son Austin’s shoulder. “You become a pig racer.”
Grumbling tummies gravitated toward snack booth row where the cost of a dish of homemade chocolate bread pudding benefitted a cultural exchange trip to England for the eighth graders of West Tisbury School, the price of a hamburger funneled into a scholarship fund sponsored by the West Tisbury firefighters and a helping of egg rolls helped the Martha’s Vineyard Touchdown Club.
The exhibit hall remained sealed to the masses until afternoon yesterday while residents of Windemere strolled through crowd free and volunteer committees of community judges awarded first, second and third place ribbons and honorable mention awards to the best entries in categories ranging from eggs and butter to photography.
Hanging overhead like flags from wooden beams supporting the hall ceiling were brightly colored quilts. The Madonnas of Martha’s Vineyard, a metallic-threaded piece fashioned by Paulette Hayes of Vineyard Haven, earned first place in the adult wall hanging category and the Lois Watkins award, a $10 prize for most original quilt pattern. The twice award-winning design consists of 30 square patches that display photographic faces of crowned and royally cloaked real-life ladies of the Vineyard. With titles to fit their personas, the scheme includes the Madonna of always cleaning with a feather duster in hand, the Madonna of sarcasm in a purple robe adorned with the letter S, and the Madonna of French whores.
Clustered at the opposite end of the hall around a platter of browned slivers of quick bread, five taste test veterans stabbed plastic forks into cakes, pies, breads and scones for 181 bites of the adult baked goods entries. The judges scrutinized entries like chocolate mocha latte pies and angel food sponge cake for smell, taste, texture and appearance, a process that devoured five hours of time last year.
“Someone has to die,” taster Joe Sollitto said of the only route to getting a judgeship on the baked goods committee. “I’ve been doing this since 1975. We all have been doing this forever and after years we’ve become experts in our own minds,” he said, adding, “We’ve learned to use technical culinary terms, like ‘yuck.’ ”
Some years these sour words erupt from the judges mouths more than others. “Someone stored their flour near mothballs one year and they made a bunch of things and everything tasted like mothballs,” recounted Jane Norton, a baking judge since the 1970s.
The judges swish gulps of water or lemonade around their mouths to clean their palates between bites, so as to prevent the flavor of pumpkin spice — or mothballs — from contaminating their next mouthful of blueberry pie.
“One year I judged the kids’ [baking competition] at night and the adults in the morning,” taste tester since 1985 Larry Yorke said. “I had a sugar fix for weeks.”
Nearby, a panel of three women dressed in matching orange aprons judged the clarity, density and consistency — but not the taste — of 173 pairs of canned fruits, vegetables and honeys. The number of children’s entries skyrocketed to 31 this year, from an annual average of about five.
Holding jars of honey up to the light, the judges speculated possible reasons for the spike in participation. “It could be the weather,” said judge Pam Thomas. “The kids couldn’t go to the beach this year, so they made jellies.”
This year also marks the start of the judging of a category of honey preserved by noncommercial participants. Six people entered jars of sticky golden honey into this new competition and Randi Baird of West Tisbury earned the blue ribbon prize.
“It’s so important and so great to see this [new category],” said judge Jennifer Strachan. “We wouldn’t have any of these jellies if it wasn’t for the bees pollinating the fruit.”
Across the hall, bounties of healthier foods cloaked tables and benches where a panel of judges examined tomatoes in a competition that judge Carol Koury said is the skimpiest showing she has seen in 20 years because of a blight-ridden harvest this year.
“It’s a headbanger,” said judge Teri Praskach, holding a ruby grapefruit-sized tomato in her palm. “We had such cold and wet weather, and tomatoes like it dry and hot. But despite that, [the entries] are still gorgeous.”
Outside under the new nonprofit tent, spokesmen soliciting causes ranging from health care reform to voter registration lined their tables together rather than scattered among food booths and artisan shops on the lawn. “Our first reaction was negative,” said League of Women Voters Secretary Julie Tholander. “Where we were before, we got a lot of traffic. People would always be coming by us anyway and they would stop and ask [questions]. Nobody has come in here yet,” she said about an hour and a half after opening. “The key word is ‘yet.’ ”
Despite worries that fair participation might dip due to the troubling economic climate, Vineyard community members and visitors contributed 4,104 entries — 14 more than last year.
“Gardens grew despite the weather, which kept people inside and busy with their handiwork,” fair committee member Nancy-Alyce Abbott said in a cotton candy-colored staff T-shirt.
But on Thursday morning it was too soon to tell whether attendance would mirror the fine turnout in entries.
“Right now it’s jammin’,” said trustee and agricultural society treasurer Nola Mavro at 11 a.m. “We’re really hoping that admission is going to keep up like this all weekend.”
But the recession did inspire some adjustments to this fair this year that have already materialized. The fair committee pared down its stock of T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, aprons and posters adorned with Morgan Lucero’s winning fair poster design this year to prepare for a drop in sales due. At noon on Thursday, fair committee members said again that it was too soon to calculate any change in the amount of money shelled out by fair shoppers.
“People only have so much disposable income,” fair committee member Pat Law said inside the fair apparel and poster shack. “We’re hoping they will bring it here. The [Agricultural] Society generates scholarships and promotes farming and gardening, which are all great things.”
Last year during fair season, a letter published in the Gazette accused the fair of overpricing admittance tickets and angered fair veterinarian David Tuminaro. The amateur photographer set out onto the fair grounds to collect snapshots of all the activities the entrance fee to the fair buys a ticket-holder. Mr. Tuminaro pieced the images of a farmer shearing his sheep, a teamster talking in the ear of his oxen, a musician strumming a washboard and more together into a collage that now hangs in the exhibit hall.
“It [costs] $8,” said Eve Heyman, entry clerk and wife of Mr. Tuminaro. “We are one of the least expensive fairs in the state of Massachusetts. And for all the things you can do here with the price of admission, it’s a wonderful deal.”