FOR THE PAST FEW SUMMERS NOW, and occasionally into early fall, I've gone searching for something I've now concluded doesn't exist.

I've traveled to the state fairgrounds at Timonium and Richmond, not to mention to numerous county fairgrounds in between, all with my toddler son in tow as a kind of Sherpa guide. In the end, I realized that what I was trying to re-create (or, more precisely, recapture) was that "pure" fair experience I seemed to remember from my youth. But that remembered experience -- of Ferris wheels and bumper cars, cotton candy and hamburgers, of innocent games of skill and chance near barns filled with lowing cows and baaing sheep -- is just that: a memory.

There is nothing pure about the fairs of today. Yet that's why they're still so gosh-darned wonderful.

To be sure, all fairs retain some connection to their origins as agricultural festivals. Even the Arlington County Fair, with its suburban setting and relatively sophisticated, international dining options, includes a petting zoo and pig races. Yet even some of the so-called "traditional" country fairs, with their emphasis on livestock auctions and prize-winning heifers, have lately started to incorporate stands hawking such products as body jewelry and T-shirts with slogans such as "I'm not a [rhymes with witch]. I'm the [rhymes with witch], and I'm Miss [Rhymes With Witch] to you."

So much for homemade apple butter.

My advice? Get over it. The fairs of yesteryear were never strictly one thing either.

Part celebration of home arts and animal husbandry, part carnival, and, yes, part freak show (especially the larger ones), the fair has a long history of being not just a place to taste country cooking or to watch a sheep being sheared, but to check out, say, Angel the Snake Woman. (And, yes, while this kitschy, old-school voyeurism is, sad to say, rapidly dwindling in favor of such fare as interactive robot shows, you don't have to travel too far to find remnants of it. Last year's Virginia State Fair, with a booth featuring "The World's Smallest Woman," is a case in point.)

As for the food, it's far easier to find "freedom fries" and deep-fried Twinkies these days than anything that reminds you of Mom's kitchen, but the good stuff is out there. You may just have to look a little harder. Or stand downwind of the food tents.

The typical fair is a crowded, loud (you think chain saw carving is quiet?) and smelly thing. If wandering through a midway clouded by the perfume of manure at one end and of kielbasa smothered in onions at the other, all the while dodging children carrying inflatable Spider-Man figures taller than you are, doesn't appeal to you, stay away. If monster truck rides, cow chip bingo, Skee-Ball and barbecue hold zero allure, don't waste your time.

Myself, I love it. Not the crowds, per se, or the long lines for the most popular rides, or the parking hassles, or the chintzy quality of the prizes, but the loopy, crazy-quilt, performance-art nature of it all. Emblematic of America, the fair is the great equalizer. Policy wonks from the Cato Institute might mingle at picnic tables with tractor-cap-wearing dudes with mullets. And as the sun sets and the families with the youngest children file out of the gates toward the parking lot, the second shift of teenagers and young lovers looking for a dark corner to canoodle in is just getting started.

I would say that the fair has something for everyone, but that's not exactly true. My fair may not be your fair, and we could be standing two feet apart, in the neon shadow of the Zipper ride. Not only is every fair different -- some brassier, some more tranquil, some crasser, some more quaint -- but everyone's experience of the fair is unique.

I remember coming back from the Calvert County Fair last summer. A friend of mine from Norway, whose 3-year-old son had attended as a guest of our son, remarked, as we dropped her child off, that there is no such equivalent to the fair in Europe.

It may not be pure, but in its raucous cacophony of flavors, sights and sounds -- in its prickly yet entertaining irascibility and in its gift for slumming even as it soars -- the fair is quintessentially, proudly American.

Staff writer Michael O'Sullivan covers art and film for Weekend and is now an expert on the effect of eating fried dough just before riding the Tilt-A-Whirl.


Scenes from 2003, clockwise from bottom left: A young man puts on a happy face at the Calvert County Fair; the Zipper lights up the night in Calvert; a contestant in the livestock competition shows how well she can handle her animal at the Virginia State Fair; shorn themselves, Kyle, Jake and Joshua Jenkins get to work at the Prince George's County Fair; Dennis Beach demonstrates his chain saw sculpting skills at the Virginia State Fair; these little piggies go to the races in Prince George's; and a sawmill operates at the Virginia State Fair.Simon Birnstad, from left, gets his hands (and mouth) on cotton candy at the 2003 Calvert fair; fans cheer for their favorite web-footed runners in Prince George's; Isaiah Taylor has a ball in Calvert.Last year's Calvert County Fair featured a Ferris wheel and other midway staples, above left, as well as animals such as llamas.