Updated: Feb 26
Growing up in the RTP, the North Carolina State Fair marked the true beginning of fall, which in my family’s house meant the beginning of the holiday season. It’s as if the state suddenly gets the memo when the fair comes to town. The weather dips, the smell of burnt leaves fill the air, and you suddenly find yourself finally pulling out that new scarf you’ve been dying to wear.
My family has a tradition of attending the fair on opening weekend every year. It’s a special energy that you find on opening weekend. All those in attendance are super excited, but you can feel the jitters emanating from all the vendors as they get into the swing of things. For us, the fair is a really fun fall day, but for those who have small businesses being showcased, it’s a ten-day work week that they wait for all year.
Like every year, I saw the same stands. Italian sausages at Barefoot and Sons, turkey legs at McBride’s, the pie guy’s voice resonating from the intercom, all of the classics made their appearance this year at the NC State Fair, but there were some other stands vying for a place in the hearts of fair goer’s around the triangle this year, as well.
While the Wisconsin Cheddar stand has been a staple at the fair since I can remember, the line was always too long and I never had the patience to wait. I guess I caught them at a good moment this year because there wasn’t a line, so I jumped at the chance to finally try their much-talked-about cheese sticks. At the suggestion of the attendant, I ordered the jalapeno cheddar sticks with a side of queso to dip them in (keep in mind that the fair is a major cheat day where all health rules go out the window, and it’s fabulous). The cheese sticks were HUGE, and my order came with six of them, meaning it’s absolutely necessary to share them with the whole group. The jalapeno sticks were super spicy. If you’re a big fan of heat, you may not agree, but I’m somewhere in the middle when it comes to tolerance of all things spicy, so one stick was more than enough for me. The queso; however, was absolutely necessary. I would love to try their traditional sticks next time around, with the queso, of course.
Everyone has their favorite item at the fair, but my two must-haves are the sweet corn on the cob dipped in butter, and the candied nuts, where you can buy three packs for $12. I tried the fried mac and cheese for the first time this year, which is my sister’s must-have, and I ended up kicking myself for not having discovered them sooner. They were rich and disgustingly delicious. There is a part of the auditorium that is reserved for different vendors, and it is in there where my mom discovered a fantastic candy apple stand. Most of the candy apples you see around the fair are pre-packaged, not fresh, and certainly not worth the sugar intake. This particular stand; however, was the real deal. The apples were tart and fresh, and they had a plethora of flavors that went beyond the basic caramel option. My husband and I are big fans of the apple pie apple, and this vendor’s version did not disappoint. We inhaled the apple in its entirety as soon as we got home.
My mom got her homemade, soft-serve ice cream fix, and then we rounded out the night with my favorite part of the fair, the garden at the edge of the fair grounds. The garden has different sections, and every planter chooses a theme for their specific plot. It’s always interesting to see how different artistic visions can somehow come together to create such a beautiful and cohesive fusion. A few years back, the Alice in Wonderland theme was quite popular and walking through the garden felt like I was making my way down the rabbit hole, and I loved every second of it.
This year, Dia de los Muertos seemed to be quite popular. The theme’s vibrant colors and florals proved to be a hit, but I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more detail surrounding the hidden gazebos and arches that you find as you walk through the garden. In years past, every arch was wrapped with ivy and fresh annuals, and every gazebo had a stone path leading up to it or fairy lights illuminating the pillars. This year, it all seemed much simpler. It was still a beautiful and refreshing exhibit, but I would’ve enjoyed some of the more elaborate work that I’ve seen in years past.
NC has a great history of farming and gardening, and the state fair is a moment to let this part of our culture shine. I look forward to seeing the garden exhibitions each year because it makes me appreciate the hard work behind much of the “farm-to-table” experiences that I enjoy so much throughout the year. I hope that their displays continue in the coming years, and that there is a resurgence in showcasing their talents.
As always, my trip to the state fair this year was amazing. I stuffed myself with fried, guilty pleasures, avoided rides because I’m a scaredy-cat, and surveyed the ever-evolving farming community’s impressive accomplishments over the past year. I shared lots of laugh with my family walking through the smokey alleyways, hunting for fried bites and aesthetically pleasing photo ops, and my dad got his funnel cake, which is really all that matters.