Debra Benning remembers a time when going to the California State Fair meant eating deep-fried everything.
For her, the trek to the annual exposition in Sacramento every year meant non-stop consumption of things like corn dogs, lobster fries, funnel cakes, and deep-fried, bacon-wrapped peanut butter cups.
“On a stick, off a stick; it didn’t matter,” said Benning at Cal Expo on Friday. “I would start eating the minute I got here, and walk out the gate with a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone to go.”
On Friday, Benning, 66, sat eating farm fresh peaches and watermelon with a group of other senior citizens at The Kaiser Permanente Farm, a 3.5 acre oasis where visitors can learn about 70 or more California-grown crops, taste culinary delights prepared by chefs in an outdoor kitchen, and shop at an onsite Farmers Market.
The hands-on, foodie-friendly experience is also home to a blacksmith booth, insect pavilion, and an urban farming exhibit where people can learn about backyard and container gardening.
Benning said she doesn’t remember the shift to healthier fair food, but she’s seen quite a bit of it in recent years – from gluten-free vegetable dishes to white-meat chicken kabobs with mushrooms and red peppers sold on the midway.
Benning thinks the fair’s agricultural exhibits are the reason for the change.
This year, the California State Fair celebrated its 50th anniversary at Cal Expo by showcasing its agriculture roots through livestock exhibits, agricultural competitions, and special displays.
Organic Roots, the family-owned organic extra virgin olive oil company in Maxwell, won Gold for its Koroneiki, a Greek variety best known for its peppery finish and unparalleled flavor for rich dishes.
With 170 of the Golden State’s best extra virgin olive oil in competition, Organic Roots also took home Silver for its Arbequina, and Bronze for its Arbosana.
“The entries won awards based on the quality and complexity of their flavor characteristics, as well as their balance of aroma and flavors,” said Judge Nancy Ash, in a statement. “I, for one, can’t wait to use these 2017 medal winners in my own kitchen.”
The State Fair also judged 2,663 wines from more than 700 California wineries, with Grindstone Winery of Arbuckle taking home Gold for its vintage 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, scoring 95 out of a possible 100.
Grindstone also won Bronze for its Cortina Red Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Verdot.
Dating back to 1854, the California State Fair Wine Competition is America’s oldest and most prestigious wine event, fair officials said.
With the 2017 theme of “California – Memories in the Making,” 23 of California’s 58 counties wowed fairgoers with engaging displays designed to make a lasting impact.
Colusa County’s exhibit, which earned the Silver Award, showcased not only local agriculture, but also tourist attractions related to the Sacramento River.
The California County’s exhibit has been a longtime feature at the State Fair, and is considered one of the most popular attractions. The Best of Show went to Sonoma County. Glenn County won a Gold Award, and a special award for the best use of products. Yolo County won Best Craftsmanship, and Yuba County and Sutter County each won Bonze.
“I know a lot of people who make it a goal to visit every state in the U.S. before they die,” said Johanna Appleton, of Sacramento, as she looked over Colusa’s exhibit on Friday. “I think for us Californians, we should make it our goal to visit every county. I love (the county exhibits) because they make me want to go there.”
This year’s State Fair unveiled a new exhibit this year celebrating the contributions of farm workers, who help cultivate the food that feeds California, the U.S., and the world.
The California State Fair continues through Sunday, with a line up of big entertainers including Trace Adkins on Thursday, Belinda Carlisle on Friday, The Marshall Tucker Band on Saturday, and Melissa Etheridge on Sunday.
Thursday is First Responders Day with free admission to law enforcement and first responders with ID. ■