Texas Roundup (Yee-Haw!)

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Now it’s time to talk about all the other stuff we did/ridiculous fried stuff we ate during our few days in Texas. (Translation: This is just an excuse for me to bitch about the Texas State Fair.)  I apologise for two posts in a row that are mostly angry rants, but I do love to complain, so this is what you get.   One of the things I was most excited about was attending the Texas State Fair on its opening day.  I used to look forward to the Geauga County Fair every year, so I thought a State Fair that is one of the biggest (the biggest?) in the country must be even more awesome.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

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To begin with, the fair is expensive.  Like, super expensive.  $18 per adult, plus an additional $15 for parking.  We managed to get half price entry by bringing a 20 oz. Coke brand product (for the homeless apparently, which is really bizarre.  I would have been happy to bring some tins of beans or jars of peanut butter or something else with actual nutritional value, but collecting a nutritionally devoid beverage on behalf of needy people felt wrong.  If they had just wanted an empty bottle, like if Coke was sponsoring it and they wanted you to buy their products, that at least would have made sense.  Donating something that unhealthy made me kind of uncomfortable, but I guess empty calories are better than no calories?  I dunno, maybe I’m being too judgy), but we still had to use the stupid ticket system to buy food and junk.  Yeah, you can’t just pay with cash at the stalls like a normal fair, you have to get tickets for everything.  I mean, rides, sure, but food?  I think it was just an excuse to jack up the prices and hope you wouldn’t notice how much everything cost, because tickets.

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And can we talk about the food?  The Texas State Fair is famous for deep-frying any kind of weird shit they can put on a stick, so I imagined they’d have all the fryers fired up, and the stuff would at least be fresh.  Not so.  I don’t know when they fry this crap (I mean, it was the first day of the fair, so it couldn’t have been sitting around for that long, but that’s not what the taste would have you believe), but it was definitely not fried to order like all the stuff at the Geauga County Fair is.  If someone tried to give you an hours-old funnel cake there, you’d tell them where to shove it.  Here, that was just standard procedure (although I don’t even think I saw any funnel cakes there.  Not strange enough I guess).  My boyfriend was more adventurous than I was; after eating a stale old fried Snickers, I’d had enough, but he tried the fried coke (disgusting.  It was soaked in some kind of cold Coke syrup that made the balls all soggy and gross) and a fried chicken and waffle on a stick, which he said tasted a week old.  So we struck out on the food.  Well, except for the free pudding samples Kozy Shack was giving away.  I’ve never been a big pudding person (in the American sense of pudding), and eating a free tub of chocolate pudding that was just sitting out seemed kind of gross to me, but it was actually still cold, and damn, that shit was tasty.  Made up for the unpleasant vaguely coconut flavoured cotton candy (seriously, how do you mess up cotton candy?!  It’s just sugar!).

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The attractions were not much to speak of either.  Except for wooden roller coasters, I don’t really go on rides (because they make me hurl if any spinning or loops are involved), but I do enjoy all the baking and craft competitions they normally have at fairs.  Well, not here.  Instead, they only had grim warehouse-like expo buildings full of pushy people selling various useless crap.  There were a few attractive art deco-y buildings, some of them used by local museums, including a music exhibit put on by the historical society, which was ok, albeit too crowded, but the rest of them were just full of new cars and other boring junk.

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And the animals, which are usually the best part of this sort of thing, were limited to cattle, horses, goats, and a few pigs.  I know there’s some poultry disease going around this year, which is why none of the fairs were having chickens or ducks, but what about the rabbits?  Or sheep?  Normally the horses all have names, and are really well groomed, but these horses were nameless, and kind of dirty and sad looking, with unkempt manes.  Clearly, these were not owned by 4-H kids like the ones in Ohio, as no pride had been taken in their appearance.  They weren’t even that many animals there overall; at a fair that’s meant to be one of the biggest, I was expecting a lot more.

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Because it was the opening night, they did have fireworks and a little parade of Texas themed floats, with Texas themed music, which was cute.  And of course Big Tex was there in all his glory, and he was pretty great.  As we were about to leave, we discovered where all the cute animals were hiding; in something that was labelled a children’s barn, which is why we didn’t go in at first, but it turns out it was open to everyone, and you could buy food for a dollar a cup to feed the animals.

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The problem is that all the cutest ones had already been fed by every child there, so they weren’t much interested in eating (plus I felt bad that they’d already been harassed by everyone, though that obviously didn’t stop me petting them).  I couldn’t get the tiniest baby goats or the Highland calf to come over, so I just ended up giving all my food to the buffalo calf, as he was the only enthusiastic one (and he was still pretty adorable).  The fair was not great (understatement of the year), and if you’ve never been to an American fair before, I’d definitely head to a nice county one before wasting your time here.  It was way too commercial, and completely devoid of that homespun feel I’d usually associate with fairs.

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The only place I did like in Dallas was a doughnut/biscuit joint called Hypnotic Donuts.  We had to wait for about twenty minutes just to get inside, but their biscuits (biscuits in the American sense, just to clarify, so picture big fluffy buttermilk scone-y things, rather than dry cookies) were nearly the size of my head, and awesome (though if you don’t eat meat, you’re limited to peanut butter and honey or jam as toppings, which was not a huge problem since I usually just have honey or lemon curd on biscuits anyway), as was the Peace-taschio doughnut with brown butter icing and roasted pistachios.  My boyfriend can recommend the fried chicken sandwich on a glazed doughnut, with bonus sriracha.

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Going back to earlier in the trip, after we left the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, we saw signs for a Mammoth National Monument.  Being a geologist, my boyfriend is pretty keen on fossils and such, so we stopped off at this National Park Site.  For $5, we were given about an hour long tour and explanation of the site by a knowledgeable ranger (or maybe just employee? He wasn’t wearing the hat, so I dunno).  Even though the billboards kind of made it look like a tourist trap, it wasn’t that at all.  Just a legit prehistoric site where the ranger seemed to really know his stuff and the mammoth bones are remarkably well preserved, so this is probably worth a stop if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

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We also stopped at Round Rock Donuts on our way out of Austin (what can I say, I LOVE doughnuts), which you may have seen featured on Man vs Food and other shows for its super huge “Texas-sized” glazed doughnuts.  For once, this is a place that does live up to the hype.  I only had the normal sized doughnuts, but they’re served warm, and are pretty damn amazing.  I just don’t get why they’re orange.  Not in flavour, but colour.  Their website says it’s because of the fresh eggs they use, but that doesn’t explain why the glaze is orange as well.  Whatever, they’re good, and I can deal with ingesting some artificial colouring (Cap’n Crunch Berries is one of my favourite cereals, so I’m apparently ok with quite a lot of artificial colouring!).

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Continuing on the subject of fried things, Austin is the birthplace of Whole Foods, and it’s quite a hippie kind of town, with lots of health food stores (which is why it was my favourite place we went, by far.  Not that I eat healthily (see above), but health food stores generally have crackin’ vegetarian options, which is not something that be said for most of Texas).  The Whole Foods flagship store is there, and it’s giant and really nice, but there’s also Wheatsville Co-op, home of the world famous (in the veg*n blogging world) popcorn tofu (as in, fried like popcorn chicken, not covered with actual popcorn). In fact, Wheatsville Co-op was all around pretty cool, especially for those of a vegetarian persuasion (you can’t beat homemade agua fresca and Zapp’s Cajun Crawtaters!).

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Also in Austin is the State Capitol building.  This beautiful building drew our eye at night on our way back to our hotel, because it was all lit up.  We went closer to take pictures, not expecting it to be open as it was nearly 9, but it turns out, it’s open until 10 at night, although most of the public rooms are only open during the day.  Some friendly rangers (I think they were rangers this time, they did have hats) waved us in (after we went through metal detectors), and the building is just as gorgeous from the inside as the out.

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We felt a little uncertain about just wandering up the stairs, but no one seemed to mind, and it’s the best way to get pictures of the floor and ceiling of the rotunda area (and admire all the portraits of former governors, including (sigh) Dubya)  I’d like to go back when they actually have tours on to see some of the Victorian offices, but even without it, it’s a stunning building, and I highly recommend stopping by.

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Well, that about sums up Texas.  Basically, Austin was my kind of place (aside from the heat) and Dallas definitely wasn’t, but I’m glad I got to see a state I’d never been to before, even if I didn’t always enjoy it.  Next up, a few posts from my old home state of Ohio.




Burton, OH: The Great Geauga County Fair

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OK, this isn’t a museum or anything like that, but for me, county fairs always seem to herald the start of fall, even if they are technically usually held in the summer; and despite the cold rain that’s been lashing down on London since the weekend, I’m definitely in an autumnal mood, so this week you get the Burton Fair (this is kind of a rambling, reminiscing type post with a bunch of subpar animal pictures thrown in at the end, so feel free to skip it and wait for the next museum post on Friday if you don’t want to listen to me blather on).  Technically, it’s the Great Geauga County Fair, but it’s in Burton, so there you are.  Geauga County is probably best known for Amish people and an absolute crapload of snow, but it’s also home to Ohio’s oldest fair, founded in 1823 and still going strong (you may also recall me mentioning the Apple Butter Festival some time ago, which is also in Burton)!  It’s always held over Labor Day weekend, and might not be as large as the State Fair, but is still a fairly sizable venue, particularly by the standards of British fairs I’ve visited (not to mention that there’s about 1000x more random fried foods at an American fair). For the first time in a couple years, I was back in Northeast Ohio when the fair was on, so I got to partake in this year’s festivities.

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I’m sure most of my American readers have been to a similar event before, but I’ll give you the basic set-up.  A large portion of the grounds are devoted to vendor booths, rides, and carnival games, but those things have never really interested me so much as the animals and various 4H buildings around the back of the fairgrounds.  I’m from the suburbs halfway between Cleveland and Akron, so my experience of farm animals, square dancing, and the 4H Club was pretty much limited to my annual visit to the fair, and I admit part of the appeal for me was always looking into this strange “country” world that I didn’t really understand (kids excited about gardening?  How odd!).  Of course, I also loved petting cute animals, and spending time with my grandparents, who always accompanied us; my grandpa especially loved it (and also loved the fact that senior citizens get free entry on Fridays).  Nowadays, my grandparents are gone, so fairtime is always a little bittersweet, but I still enjoy it – particularly the chance to stuff myself full of all the classic American foodstuffs that you just don’t get in Britain.

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While the Burton Fair doesn’t quite have the full creative range of fried things that you might find somewhere like the Texas State Fair (although I did spot deep fried pierogies, which are probably not as well known down South), you certainly won’t go hungry either (although if you have IBS like me, you might well pay for it later!).  Though I am willing to go off piste if something else appeals, there are a few items I must always consume.  One: A milkshake from the booth that is near the cow barn (yep).  All they sell are milkshakes, and they are super thick and amazing.  I always joke that they must have been pumped straight from the cow, but I’m sure they have to pasteurise in this day and age.  Awesome nonetheless, especially because in America, we believe in putting ice cream in our milkshakes.  Two: Hawaiian Shave Ice.  This is especially good on the really hot years, but I love it anytime.  Pink lemonade is my favourite syrup, but I usually go for the huge one where you can choose three syrups.  It is far superior to the Sno Cone because the finer grind of ice nicely soaks up the syrup, instead of turning into dirty ice with a pool of syrup on the bottom. Three: French waffles.  My grandpa would always buy a huge bag of these for us to take home (after much grumbling about the price) and we carry on the tradition.  A French waffle is actually based more on a Swedish pastry (although the American interpretation is thankfully sans cardamom), wherein a fluted iron is dipped into a thin batter, and then the whole thing is plunged into deep fat; a thin, crispy waffle emerges, and is then smothered in powdered sugar that will end up all over your clothes.  Greasy and divine.  If I’m feeling brave, I will attempt an elephant ear, but this year my confection of choice was a deep fried Snickers, because obviously a Snickers is far superior to a Mars Bar (Snickers and Twix are my two favourite candy bars).

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I do have to burn off all those empty calories, and that’s where walking around the exhibition spaces comes in.  A few of them are devoted to arts and crafts done by children, and the things they make can sometimes be a bit creepy (see several examples of this, above), especially the section where they demonstrate their sewing skills by making doll clothes (the clothes themselves are always very good, it’s more that some of the dolls the children use look as though they want to eat your soul), but there’s also plenty of cute things, like the parsnip family and that picture of a cat, and I always find it just a little depressing that 8 year old children have more artistic skills than I ever will.

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I also love the building where all the vegetables are on show, especially the giant sunflowers (they always tell you the height, and they are often over 14 feet), but the bee keeping display is my favourite, because they always have an array of honeys to sample.  There are also buildings holding the entries for the adult competitions.  They award prizes for various categories of baked goods, which I always enjoy admiring even if you don’t get to actually try them (probably for the best, as they start to look a bit rough over the course of the weekend).  There’s also prizes for sewing, maple sugar moulding (Geauga County is also known for its maple syrup, and there’s a Maple Sugar Festival held there as well), and even table arranging!

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And of course, there’s a whole building for flowers.  I’m not super into flowers or anything; I enjoy looking at them, although I don’t know the names of most of them, but the flower building is nonetheless a treat for the senses, especially if you come straight from the charming odours of the cow barn.

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Because I am a bookworm at heart, and love reading about a gazillion times more than any kind of outdoor activity, the highlight of my fair experience is picking through the shelves of the Geauga County Library booksale, which takes up an entire building right by the entrance; hardbacks are $1 and paperbacks 50 cents, so I grab as many books as I can justify hauling back to England (my three bookcases pay testament to this), but there’s so much more to enjoy that I haven’t even mentioned yet.  There’s always a band of some adorable old people playing trumpets and clarinets and things, there’s usually a big display of army memorabilia, and a huge field full of tractors (I find the tractors incredibly dull, but certain family members seem to enjoy them).  And I certainly can’t forget about the animals, who fill more of the buildings than anything else, because who doesn’t love adorable animals (though I feel bad for the ones that are going to be sold for food, but it doesn’t stop me wearing leather, so I guess I should just shut up).  I love the goats and rabbits the most, but they’re all pretty cute.  So I’ll spare you from my pictures of fair attendees with mullets, and just leave you with lots of animal pics!  And I’d definitely urge you to visit a county or state fair of this nature if you’ve never been, because they are clearly a riot of interesting sites, sounds, and smells (and that includes some of the people!).

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