Where a spider's a spider, a good hog is just some pig

Fair: 4-H'ers have little time for a 100-year-old fairy tale, even if it's `Charlotte's Web.'

August 31, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

" `Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. `Out to the hoghouse,' replied Mrs. Arable. `Some pigs were born last night.' "

So begins a perfectly perfect book called "Charlotte's Web" by Elwyn Brooks White, a writer born precisely 100 years ago. Remembered for his pieces in the New Yorker and for his trio of children's books, E.B. White's legacy continues this year with the theatrical release of "Stuart Little."

While the story of White's little mouse could be the talk of the town, it is "Charlotte's Web" we are reminded of amid the livestock pens at the Maryland State Fair, which is well under way in Timonium. How would the story of a farm girl, an endearing pig and a crafty spider play today?

For the uninitiated, "Charlotte's Web" is a story of a girl named Fern, who falls in love with a spring pig. By naming him Wilbur, she essentially grants him a stay of execution. But it takes a gray spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica to save Wilbur's life when she spins "SOME PIG" in her web.

Wilbur, who becomes famous thanks to web-master Charlotte, lives a long, fat life -- but he never forgets his friend: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

So ends "Charlotte's Web," which was written in 1952 and at another glance, remains a sweet if naive tale of life (and death) on a farm. Naive, only if one has stopped believing in true friendship. Naive, perhaps, if one has visited a state fair's livestock barn to talk with children and grown-ups who live, work and clean up after pigs. The livestock barn is no place for sentimentalists or sneakers.

It's around 10 a.m. at the fairgrounds. The Thomases from West Friendship in Howard County have been hovering around Pen No. 236 since 8 a.m. Their three hogs are belly up in a bed of wood shavings. The pigs really do have curly tales, and they really do look like they are smiling when asleep. Sweet piggies. Why, you just want to take one home with you.

A few pens down, a girl slaps her pig in its immovable rump. Wonder what she has named it.

"Food," the girl says, before scurrying off to another chore. Food? That doesn't sound like Fern fussing over Wilbur. "Fern loved Wilbur more than anything. She loved to stroke him, to feed him, to put him to bed."

When they return, the Thomases surely will restore the letter and spirit of "Charlotte's Web." Meanwhile at the Food Pavilion, "Whole Hog Sausage Link" and "Real Maryland Pork B-B-Q" sell hand over fist. A pamphlet from the American Lamb Council offers recipes for caraway lamb meatloaf, minted orange lamb shanks and maple-ginger lamb kabobs. Thinking nothing of the source, we gobble a pork sandwich, as the Midway opens for business.

There's Holly now at the hog pen. Holly Thomas is an 11-year-old, freckly kid in sensible boots and jeans and a 4-H green bow. She looks like our mental image of Fern. But Holly has never read "Charlotte's Web." Guess she's too busy taking care of hogs on the family farm. That old excuse.

Her father, David Thomas, looks slightly amused and heavily sweaty as he listens to Holly talk hogs. Pigs weren't his idea. With perhaps the only British accent at the fair, Thomas says he runs a machine shop that provides parts to NASA. His four children are heavily into 4-H, and with the six acres they have out in Howard County, why not make room for livestock? Plus, if the winds are kind, their house is downwind.

Dad, turns out, can talk hogs with the best of them. "Been so hot, they look a little light," Thomas says, eyeballing his stock. He means his hogs might not "make weight." Hogs brought to the state fair must weigh at least 220 pounds to be eligible for sale.

Holly points out her hog, a blackish Hampshire pig nuzzling the ripe droppings of his pen mates. It's not easy to perform this recreation and maintain any sense of dignity, but hogs pull it off beautifully and repeatedly.

"Yup, it's a male," Holly says, double-checking its gender for the livestock-impaired reporter in their midst. Holly doesn't seem particularly close to her boar. "No, I didn't name it. I do have one pig at home I named Babe," Holly says.

Will Babe survive then?

"Yes," Holly says.

"No," Holly's father says. "None of our pigs survive. I can't think of a reason to keep them around."

"They are kind of smelly at home," Holly says. "My dad makes me clean up all the poop."

The Thomases had 10 little piggies, until two piggies went to market at the Howard County Fair. They hope to sell all three pigs at the State Fair, if they make weight. If they do, they could well be sold for about $3.50 a pound. An ultrasound is performed on the hog, Thomas says, to gauge how much pork is left after slaughter.

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