There isn't much that seems "cutting edge" about a pie-eating contest. Nothing educational for sure. You won't see pie eaters on cable television. No corporate sponsors. No larger-than-life personalities.

Just people, their pies and the will to gorge.

Pie eating is just one of the hundreds of gentle pleasures to be found at this year's Howard County Fair, which begins Saturday in West Friendship. The fair, in its 54th year, is a week-long celebration of American traditions, with farm life at its core. Check out the horse and pony show, the cow-milking contest and the tractor pull.

In a larger sense, the fair is a connection to rapidly developing Howard County's rural past. In these times of pre-packaged entertainment that is targeted at narrow segments of the population and has ever-escalating ticket prices, the $4-a-head county fair ($3 on weekdays) and its simple charms may just qualify as, well, "cutting edge."

After all, when was the last time you attended a worm race? Show up at the show ring at 4 p.m. on Aug. 14, and you'll see one.

The first Howard County fair was in 1946, and it has grown larger every year. The first fair featured 25 steer, nine pigs and nine lambs in livestock shows. This year there will be 113 steer, 290 pigs and 275 lambs. The fair was started to promote the county's agriculture industry, but it has evolved into a sort of convention for so-called weekend farmers, who like to raise livestock and plant crops but not for a living.

"With the increase in urbanization in Howard County, you still have a lot of people with two acres of land who like to raise sheep or pigs," said H. Mitchell Day, president of the Howard County Fair Association Inc.

Most of the exhibits--many of them 4-H projects--involve farming techniques and livestock care, but this year's fair includes a slight nod to the changing times: a computer contest. Fair organizers are particularly keen about the "Old Time Threshing" demonstration. Antique farm equipment will be used to show how wheat was harvested before petroleum-fueled farm equipment replaced this steam-driven contraption.

And, the 16th annual grand parade, featuring local fire departments, school bands and floats, will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at the fair midway.

What follows is a list of highlights from the fair schedule. For further details, call 410-442-1022.

Pie-eating contest. The rules are fairly simple. Keep your hands on your hips or behind your back. No sitting. A piece of pie does not count as a pie; we're talking points for full pies only. If you try to cram that last half-pie in your mouth but can't swallow it by the time the whistle blows, the pie is not counted.

Perhaps you think you've got the right stuff, namely an iron stomach. No problem. The pie-eating contest is open to all comers. Just bring your own Pepto-Bismol.

Baking contests. You think the Olympics have a lot of events? Just check out the fair's baking categories: apple pie, cookies, snickerdoodles, fruit bread, sweet buns, biscuits, muffins and coffee cake, for starters. And within categories are sub-categories. Take muffins: plain, bran, fruit, pumpkin and cornmeal. There are even three categories within apple pie.

Note to spectators: don't eat the entries until judging is over.

The worm race. See who will be crowned the "Fastest Worm in Howard County." The worm race has expanded to include other, um, athletes, divided into three categories by the county's top scientists. There is the "slimy" group, which includes earthworms and night crawlers. Then there are the "fuzzies," which include caterpillars. Finally there is the "pedes" category, as described in the event's rule book: "Centipedes and millipedes, due to their lightning locomotion, will race each other exclusively."

Let the games begin.

The Howard County Fair runs Aug. 7 to 14 and is open daily from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.