As August approaches, I wish that I, like a migrating bird, could return to a dusty landscape that once a year opens its doors and puts on the best county fair I've ever attended: the Allen County Fair.
At the fair – located east of Lima, Ohio – heat and humidity take a back seat to an array of delights. For 157 years, the fair has offered new versions of the same old thing: harness races, cane toss, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, caramel corn and candy apples, homemade pie at the Farm Bureau tent, and barbecued chicken in the Shawnee Lions Club tent. Also, first dates, first kisses, holding hands, and the excitement at the top of the Ferris wheel.
Over the decades, I stood in line on rainy days and sunny days, with money in hand, watching lemons sliced into wedges, dropped into heavy glass shakers with about a quarter cup of sugar, and then ground all together with a wooden pestle. Then a generous squirt of icy water and crushed ice would be added before the vendors clapped on a lid and shook the concoction according to the secret recipe. Well, I guess the secret was in the pounding and shaking.
By the time they poured it into a paper cup, added the straw, and accepted the money with a smile and "Thank you! Enjoy!" my lips ached for that first sip. It was crunchy from the ice, a sweet-sour balance that made my mouth tingle. And the lemon perfume – the whole fair smelled fresher when you drank a lemon shake-up.
Many kids, including me, worked on 4-H projects all summer. I always signed up for the sewing and cooking projects and looked forward to displaying the finished jumper or dress and baked goods in the 4-H building at the fair.
We strode through the animal barns with their warm, earthy smells. Life seemed so pastoral. Who could imagine anything bad in the world when surrounded by switching tails, animals lowing, and fragrant straw? Kids slept in the barns with their 4-H animals. Their radios blared by day and murmured at night, spilling out the latest country or rock songs, which the animals seemed to enjoy as much as the humans.
The Fine Arts Building featured handmade quilts hung along the wall. Their makers vied for small monetary awards and community recognition. The members of the Town and Country Quilt Club eyed the quilts, knowing almost as quickly as the judges who would get the blue ribbon.
Among the wooden projects, Mr. Shick's intarsia improved every year as he honed his skills and sought more exotic woods to incorporate into his pictures. His competition expanded, too. The first year, his picture introduced the craft to fairgoers. The next year, several of his fellow farmers spent the winter in their own workrooms. Yet, even as competition grew, he continued to take home the blue ribbon.
The horticulture and baking contests, the Grange displays, and canned goods competitions were judged on the first day of the fair. Cooks and gardeners were up early, making or picking entries so they would be as fresh as possible.
We kids had a "safe house" at my Uncle Ed's display in the Merchant's Building. We met among his stoves and various pristine appliances under the banner: "Stump's Home Appliance." Our parents would sit and visit, even lend a hand if necessary. But mostly they would listen to the tall stories that Uncle Ed and Boom Boom, the owner manning the Memorial [cemetery] Stone display next door, would tell one after another. Each tale grew taller with every telling.
Once again this August, I will be hundreds of miles away from the fair, but I will see it in my memory. As I sip my own version of a Lemon Shake Up, I'll remember our sons winning blue ribbons for their 4-H projects.
I'll recall my husband, Derrol, and his dad, Jack, working and laughing together to supervise the kids in the Rabbit Barn. And I'll envision Derrol beside me, walking hand in hand along those familiar fair paths, greeting old friends with almost every step.
For me, there's nowhere else to be for that week in August other than the Allen County Fair.
1/2 lemon (rind and all)
1/4 to 1/3 cup white sugar
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup crushed ice
Juice the lemon half and cut it into quarters. Put the fruit, juice and sugar in a 16-ounce shaker or heavy glass and use a pestle or wooden spoon to smash the sugar into the lemon. Add the water and crushed ice. Stir once, then cover the top and shake four or five times until the sugar is dissolved. Add enough icy cold water to fill the glass. Drink. Enjoy.
Makes 1 serving.