An enduring desire to be judged the best Down-to-earth: At the State Fair, many Marylanders begin a lifetime pursuit of blue ribbons.

September 05, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

This summer, while you were lolling on the beach, languishing at your computer, or exploring the Grand Canyon, a Baltimore tomato was busy growing two heads and a Glen Arm eggplant was working on a ski-jump nose.

If it weren't for the Maryland State Fair's "Home Arts" farm and garden exhibition, you would never get a chance to meet these vegetable oddities and other agricultural practical jokes: the double pumpkin joined at the stem, the long and winding gourd that does a sudden U-turn, the humongous, bilious green squash that looks like it's made of frozen flab, or the big egg that isn't a vegetable at all, entered by a prankster.

There is something wonderfully weird, yet soothing, about surveying the state fair's ample harvest of homely and handsome provisions and 4-H projects. In the 4-H hall -- this is your last weekend to catch it -- is an all-natural "Ripley's Believe It or Not," where obsessiveness and quirkiness are guilelessly celebrated with hundreds of entries on display, and where an eggshell-thin membrane separates Stephen King creepiness from cozy domesticity.

For evidence of the strangeness lurking just beneath the bustling surface of industry, take a look at the enormous head of a sunflower resting in a box lined with pretty yellow tissue paper. There is something about that tableau that recalls the fate of Marie Antoinette, or better yet, Cyclops.

At the fair, the bizarre holds hands with the mundane. Within these exhibition halls, cabbages are kings, a miniature hand-carved ham under a tiny bell of glass gives the midway's "Smallest Woman in the World" (29 inches) a run for her money, and the monocultural din of the outside world is silenced for awhile. We can peep into the lives of those who spend hours sewing elaborate pleated medieval costumes, putting up beets and creating critters out of corn cobs and dried apples. We see the manifold ways in which people respond to their muse, from preserving blackberries to building a house with Popsicle sticks to making a quilted blender cover.

Here, "ribbon hogs" -- both grandparents with time on their hands and overachieving yuppies who have caught the garden bug -- compete with life-or-death intensity. Creating beauty is at stake for women, being the greatest is the aim of men.

At the Maryland State Fair, potted plants, patchwork quilts and pickles determine status. Who cares about your CD collection or stock portfolio or wine cellar (unless you're making your own wine and entering it at the fair). For many who compete, it is a yearlong, lifelong passion. A couple of years ago, a woman in her 90s was buried with a best-in-show ribbon for a flower arrangement she won shortly before her death.

During the state fair, 4-H/Future Farmers of America teens participate in arcane events such as the Sheep Lead contest, in which contestants model wool outfits while handling a sheep. There is no irony in the sheep showers' regulation: "Butt wool is not permitted." And ribbons are no less coveted just because more than 4,000 are handed out.

Young competitors in the Cow Palace and the Swine Barn dress in white and some even don ties to show their pigs and goats. They cultivate a certain sang-froid about lovingly combing a pig or steer before shipping it off to market.

These kids are as tuned in as anyone to the pop-culture wavelength, but they have pursuits that tether them to the earth. By extension, their great annual show connects the rest of us to the earth, which can be as strange and wonderful as any new computer game.

Fair days

What: 117th Maryland State Fair

Where: Timonium Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road

When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily through Monday; livestock and horse shows start at 9 a.m.

Admission: $4 adults; kids under 12, free

Call: 410-252-0200, Ext. 226, or visit the Web site: http: //

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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