HISTORY RECORDS that the now-traditional American country fair was the brainchild of one Elkanah Watson, who in 1811 created the Berkshire County Cattle Show in Pittsfield, Mass.
Watson was driven by a concern that farmers in the new land were falling behind Europe in their animal husbandry. His notion was that an agricultural exhibit, bringing together the best of livestock, would inspire emulation and improvement. A better farmer, a better nation would result.
Watson's idea caught on quickly and fairs sprang up across New England, then across the growing nation. Watson perhaps never envisioned tacky midways, peep shows and tractor pulls that eventually would become standard fare at the thousands of country fairs that now dot America. But there seems little doubt that his idea was sound.
What we have now, as country fair season draws nigh and as rural America prepares to render its annual homage to the bounty of the land, is another phenomenon that Watson surely could not foresee. Much of the food and snacking fodder that fuels the fair-goer -- the stuff of rich aroma and texture that excites the palate -- is not food at all. Our annual celebrations of American agriculture have become monuments to concoctions of processor and chemist that have little, if anything, to do with the produce of the land.
The glory of this world of dietary prestidigitation comes spilling off the pages of the catalogue of one of the country's largest purveyors of the multimillion-dollar industry that is generously called "fun foods." This is the stuff that will be peddled along the midway of every country fair and volunteer firemen's carnival this summer. The fun ranges from chemically flavored popcorn and milkless ice cream to nacho cheese powder and ersatz bacon rinds.
The secret of it all is divulged in the fine print of the "Sno-Kone" section, which offers syrup flavor concentrates. "The flavors are compounded by the same chemists that develop all our flavors -- they know the problems in flavoring Sno-Kones, and they compound to give you top notch, full strength, richly colored syrups," the catalogue says.
So there you have it. With the miracle of chemistry, the possibilities for fun foods are limited only by the imagination of the entrepreneur. But little has escaped the imagination.
Consider the popcorn. Once the genuine kernel has left the farm, it is subjected to immeasurable indignity intended to make it succulent, appealing, aromatic. It turns out there is no end to the commercial finagling to convert plain old popcorn into something else.
For starters there are 50-pound drums of butter-flavored coconut oil, billed as "the finest oil for popping popcorn" (but scorned widely for the dietary effect of its highly-saturated fatty acids). Or the vendor can spray his corn with "a very fine imitation butter top dressing." Another spray keeps glazed kernels from sticking together.
There's also a "final-touch" product that adds extra butter color and flavor to the corn, with or without the Yellow No. 5 coloring (tartrazine) that has raised health concerns at the Food and Drug Administration. Yellow No. 5 is known to affect young children who suffer from a hyperkinetic condition. But not to worry. FDA allows popcorn with Yellow No. 5 to be sold as long as it is labeled. Young children, of course, are notorious label readers.
But imitation butter flavor isn't enough. There are 48 flavor mixes that can be stirred right into the coconut oil for converting the corn to a gourmet delight. Some samples: amaretto popcorn, bubble-gum popcorn, licorice popcorn, creme soda popcorn, pumpkin-pie popcorn, Italian liqueur popcorn.
Or the consumer can add his own flavoring from a shaker-top box: barbecue, bacon and egg, New York rye, bloody Mary, shrimp cocktail (higher priced), Cincinnati chili and pizza (premium priced), among others.
Remember the fudge that mother used to make? Well, it's available in powder mix. Add butter and water to the pot, stir in the mix, cook to 160 degrees, spread it in cooling pans and stand back to rack up the profits. The markup works out to about $3 a pound.
A fair wouldn't be a fair without cotton candy. A special sugar mix with "vividized" colors, carefully concentrated not to exceed FDA limits, comes in half-gallon containers, ready for pouring into the candy machine. Flavors range from blue raspberry (blue raspberry?) to pina colada.
There are dry mixes for Italian ices and non-alcoholic daiquiris and powder for the traditional soft-custard ice cream that no self-respecting fair will be without. No cholesterol problem here -- it's what they call "non-dairy" mix. The farmers over at the dairy-cow show barn may not even notice.
And there is dry mix and sugar toppings for Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cakes, elephant ears (also known as frying saucers) and French waffles. The daring vendor can even try out the novel new machine that makes spiral french fries -- the portion looks larger than regular fries, assures more profit.
The big new taste thrill is the nacho. Corn, cheese, peppers. All products of the farm, right? Ten-pound tins provide a cheese sauce with "rich rich cheddar cheese taste." An easier sauce, with pepper juice already laced in, comes in dry form -- just add water and stir.
There is more -- candy-apple mixes and caramel dips, chili sauce for hot dogs, drink-mix crystals, high-profit barbecue in a can, but the topper is the bacon puff, a.k.a. cracklins or bacon chips. Good for the farmer, good for the meat industry, one supposes, but there is a catch -- it's not much meat.
The cracklin actually comes in the form of a compressed pellet, which contains some unidentified part of the pig, which puffs to many times its original size when plunged into scalding oil for a few seconds.
Just what is this bacon puff? "I would decline to comment on it and I would probably decline to sample the product," said Robin Kline, a nutritionist with the National Pork Producers Council in Des Moines.
Be that as it may, the celebration of the harvest bounty isn't quite what it's cracked up to be. Elkanah Watson, wherever you are, come back. The country you felt needed agricultural inspiration never needed you more.
Ward Sinclair covers agriculture for The Washington Post.