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Florida State Fair

Sensory overload

Imagine a blend of barnyard and kitchen smells, loud music and dizzying rides, junk food and prize produce, aching feet and throbbing colors. It's enough to make a person scream, which many do.

By Times Staff Writers
Published February 13, 2004

photo
[Times photo: Janet Zink]
Thomas Trout, 30, beckons fairgoers to try their hand at a game on the midway at the Florida State Fair.
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Cheese gets poured over a plate of chips at "The Best Around," a Philly steak and cheese booth at the Florida State Fair.

Only three days remain in the 100th incarnation of the Florida State Fair.

That leaves just a handful of opportunities to experience firsthand the fair's one-of-a-kind sensory stew, a melange of deep-fried Twinkies, barking ring-toss vendors, dusty livestock pens, twirling neon Ferris wheels and squeezably soft bears won by picking up ducks.

Brandon Times sent four writers to the fairgrounds to experience the one-of-a-kind sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures that make up the Florida State Fair.

Read on to find out what you've been missing.

SMELLS: First, take a deep breath

Few things can prepare one's nose for the aromatic bouquet of the fair, an olfactory freak show that smells of exuberance - not to be confused with the fair's actual freak show, which smells like two-headed chicken.

Circus-font signs in every direction point to fragrances you must experience for yourself ("Pineapple whip!"), as well as places no nose should ever go ("Diaper table!").

Nothing prods the senses like the livestock display, which reeks not of manure, but of an ancient, lived-in barn - century-old pine boards, earthy hooves and cypress chips, dirt-caked rope, tightly bound hay bales, the occasional whiff of cattle.

From the thick sweetness of cotton candy and Cracker Country's boiling sugar cane syrup, to the peppery gusts of wind that blast through Polish sausage stands, nothing escapes the fair's dense atmosphere - a potpourri of mud, cedar shavings, perspiration and just the faintest hint of diesel.

Let us not forget the acrid campfire scent of roasting corn, the Sly Stone-worthy funk of a midday portable toilet, the truck-floorboard machismo of a leather goods tent - though we must warn you, few things attract more stares than a grown man sniffing cowboy boots in broad daylight.

William Hoskins may have the fair's greatest job. Surely Hoskins, who as a vendor at the Baker Foods tent spends days flipping Hun-sized turkey legs over a smoky charcoal pit, must relish every second he's able to huff that barbecue-drenched glory?

He shrugs. "You get used to it."

Doubtful, Billy. Doubtful.

- JAY CRIDLIN

SOUNDS: What's your line?

The sounds of the midway merge into a nearly indistinguishable din. Screams, mechanical crunches, Outkast, Kid Rock and Cream blast from the rides. Come-ons from the carnies blend with bells and whistles, sizzles from the food stands and shouts from fairgoers.

Occasionally, a phrase rises above the racket.

"Is this the line?"

"We're trying to find it."

"There's always a winner, there's always a prize."

"This is going straight to my thighs."

"Can we do it again?"

"Put your hands in the air!"

"Pork butt on a stick! Get it right here."

"Your first throw's free."

"Let's hear you scream!"

"My stomach's feeling a little queasy."

"A two-headed turtle. Holy moly!"

"Are you guys in line?"

"Two more players to go for the big one."

". . . another corn dog?"

"I can't hear you!"

"Come on people scream . . . if you want to go faster!"

"Cold beer, comin' through."

"It's fresh, it's hot. This is the spot."

"Look at the line."

"We're at the top!"

- JANET ZINK

TASTES: An A to Z guide

Apples dressed in crisp candy coats.

Butt of pork on a stick. ("Ooh, good butt sauce," gushes a 9-year-old on her second serving.)

Cotton candy, air-blown sugar.

Dogs, hot in a bun, corny on a stick.

Elephant ears, flaky and flat.

Funnel cake, not to be confused with the former, dripping fried batter onto the tongue.

Gator bites, gristly as tire tread.

Hush puppies for the young and young at heart.

Ice cream served soft.

Jalapeno poppers that Wisconsin Cheese's Billy Bob promises "aren't too hot." (In fact, the cool pepper burst is welcome relief from his stingy jalapeno cheese fried nuggets.)

Kabobs of steak and chicken.

London broil, a touch of class.

Meatloaf, better than your mama's.

Nachos for a snack. (Carbs don't count at the state fair.)

Oreo cookies, covered in batter and fried.

Pecan pralines, peanut brittle.

Queso, the melted cheese in an arepa. "Que rica!" promises the vendor, whose cornmeal pancake is worth the three-minute wait.

Root beer chilled by a long lick of ice cream in a frosted mug.

Shark bites, firm to the bite, tasting like, well, chicken.

Titi honey, darkly rich and thick as molasses, from a honey show.

U-serve fruit bowls at the Taste of Florida buffet.

Vanilla milkshakes, creamy coolness.

Watercress soup, cream-based and flavored with the green, musty vegetable farmed in Myakka City.

X-shaped smears of apple, chocolate and Bavarian creams atop pastries.

Yucatan drinks blended from frozen strawberries, peaches and bananas.

Zeppoles, puffs of fried dough, with a sweetness that lingers through the ride home.

- LETITIA STEIN

TOUCH: Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Footsie Wootsie. For 25 cents, a massage to the feet. Those tired, hot, aching feet.

The coin jangles into a slot. The plastic chair begins to shake. Your neck jerks. Teeth clank. Your entire spine vibrates, wobbly as a strand of spaghetti.

Footsie Wootsie only is getting started. The metal holders for your feet rattle double time, but you've lost sensation. Inside your shoes, something is throbbing. Then it goes numb.

"Oh my god," says one woman. "Wow."

David Shepler, 40, of Tampa knows just the feeling.

"A 7.0 earthquake on my feet that felt good and didn't cause any damage," he said.

At the petting zoo, PG-rated pleasures for inquisitive hands. (And parasites, no doubt.) The bristles of a horse's mane brush against the palm. Tufts of greasy wool twined between five fingers. "Soft," breathes a child who boldly took the plunge.

Hay crunches underfoot. Rods of cool metal guide the tour from pen to pen. (The point of the fence is to keep the animals from harming me - or is it the other way around?)

Beyond the sheep, search your pocket for a coin with ridges to exchange for moist relief, cool and antiseptic. Thank goodness wet wipes are for sale.

Rub a fingernail over a sunburn.

Feel the prick of a needle on the skin.

The 18-and-over crowd at RJ Holt's tattoo trailer knows the sensation.

"It doesn't hurt that much," said Nicole Buffington, 18, of Tampa.

She left the fairgrounds with a little devil tattooed on her lower back. And a wince on her face. Ouch.

- LETITIA STEIN

SIGHTS: Eyes wide open

In the special events center, photos chronicle 100 years of fairs. They are grainy, black and white.

But make no mistake: You must use color film to document the fair.

There's no other way to capture the rainbow hues that greet fairgoers:

The bright red of the Royal Hanneford Circus tent. The neon green of the skyway poles. The cascading yellow waves of the giant slide. The pink, purple and gold of the midway.

Even black seems vibrant in this landscape, especially on the 6-foot animated statue of whiskey pioneer Jack Daniels.

There are colors, and people of color. A veritable melting pot ripples back at anyone looking down the midway. Mothers push strollers and fathers hoist grade-schoolers to their shoulders.

Students pretend they're at the fair to learn, professional women escape for lunch, and seniors make their way into the expo hall to see blue ice sculptures and flying flames from glass blower Richard Bopp.

Outside the hall, folks tap their feet to the Caribbean Extravaganza Steel Band, smartly clad in tropical blue outfits.

Other fashion choices are more conventional.

Athletic shoes, jeans and T-shirts, professing allegiances to the Bucs, Lightning or the West Coast Choppers. Shorts that sport mystifying claims: 'Tis The Season To Get Naughty.

And the season to go to the fair.

- ERNEST HOOPER

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 12:51:07]

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