Big Tex is back, the Texas Star Ferris wheel is spinning, and corny dogs are in high demand. For many families, loading up the kids in the car and heading to Fair Park each fall is a ritual. Where else are you gonna get your funnel cake fix?

But in addition to just attending (and noshing on some fried Twinkies), plenty of folks in our neighborhood kick that tradition up a notch. They actually participate in the many different kinds of State Fair events, such as cooking contests, parades and even judging the culinary adventure known as cooking with Spam.

We’ve talked to a few of them to find out what they do, and, well — particularly in the case of the Spam judge — why they do it.

 

FAMILY TRADITION

Every year, at the opening day of the Texas State Fair, you will find neighborhood resident Melinda Fagin and her two girls front and center for the festivities. It’s a tradition for the family, one that goes back to 1936, when Fagin’s grandfather worked in a booth at the Hall of State during the Centennial celebration.

            “My kids are sixth generation Dallasites,” Fagin says. “They’ve grown up with the fair.”

            Fagin’s daughters, Ilana Smirin, 10, and Adina Smirin, 7, nod their heads in agreement, adding that last year they went to the fair 12 times.

            But this year, the family has much more to look forward to than just the roller coasters or butter sculpture or Chinese acrobats. This year, Fagin and both of her daughters entered Creative Arts contests — Fagin for her jam, Ilana for a knitted scarf, and Adina a self-portrait painted in art class.

            The urge to enter started a couple of years ago, when Fagin was visiting her neighbor, Adrienne Phillips and Phillip’s mother, Ingrid Hogue.

            “They were talking about how they used to make jam,” Fagin recalls. “I love to cook, and that piqued my interest. So we got together and made jam a couple of times.”

            The two neighbors decided to enter the Fair competition. Fagin and Phillips worked side-by-side, creating various flavors of jam. Both women entered their concoctions, and Phillips’ blueberry wound up taking 2nd place last year.

            Although both women were excited about the win, Fagin says she was surprised at the strict judging rules.

            “It’s very particular,” she says, explaining that once the contest is over, the judges tell you everything they believe you did wrong.

“It’s a big learning curve. I thought they would just judge on taste, but they look at the size of the jars, the way it’s sealed … but now that we’ve got it down, this year we are hoping for a jam sweep.” 

            Phillips’ win last year inspired Fagin’s daughters to enter their own projects.

            First, there’s Ilana with her pink and white knitted scarf.

            “I started liking knitting last year,” she says, explaining that one of her grandmother’s knitting club friends gave her a starter kit. After that, Ilana promptly started meeting with the Lakewood Knitwits, a group that meets weekly at the neighborhood library to work on various knitting projects. The first thing she knitted was a scarf for her mother.

            The scarf she entered in the Fair’s competition is one she made as a surprise for Adina’s birthday.

            “I worked on it for a month, two months,” Ilana says. “I told my sister it was for a friend.”

            Not wanting to be left out, Adina also decided to enter a project she worked on this year.

            “I like painting. I like to be creative. Drawing,” she says.

            So, naturally, Adina chose a self-portrait she painted at the Lakewood Arts Academy.

            “It’s my favorite picture,” she adds.

           

DR. PARADE

The State Fair of Texas is a big tradition for retired neighborhood doctor Charles Cain, who has been helping make the nightly State Fair “Starlight Parade” happen since the early ’70s (1970, unofficially; 1975, officially, he says).

In fact, he’ll be at the fairgrounds every night this year, he says.

The parade is held each night at 7:15 p.m. Highlights include the United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, the Budweiser Clydesdales, floats, stilt walkers and giant puppets.

Cain began his run with the parade back when he was in a Shriner unit (the same Shriner unit that still brings up the end of the parade, he says). As the parade grew, Cain took a spot on the committee. 

As a member of the parade committee, Cain has a number of duties.

“I do just about anything that needs to be done,” he says, rattling off a list of jobs, anywhere from walking alongside a float to driving a tractor that pulls a float; even sweeping up after the parade is over.

            “You’re always concerned that the floats will make it around without catching on fire or falling down,” Cain says.

In addition to manning the parade, committee members also have to look after the parade tent, which holds a walk-through display of floats and memorabilia and an overview of the parade’s history.

            Cain says one of the things he enjoys most about the parade is the crowd that comes out to watch.

            “It’s always nice to see the faces of the people as you go by,” he says.

            But that’s not the only thing keeping him around for all these years.

            “Most people — once they get in, they stay in. You get to know them. It’s a camaraderie that’s kind of hard to describe,” he says.

“It’s like a big family. I look forward to seeing everybody each year.”

           

DREAM JOB: SPAM JUDGE

For neighborhood resident Frank Wood Jr., being a judge for the Fair’s Creative Arts department can be a little like being in an episode of “Fear Factor.”

That’s because he’s one of the judges for the National “Best Spam Recipe” Competition.

            Wood has been a Spam judge for about five years now, and he has seen and tasted everything from “Spambalaya” to “Spam Tetrazzini” to last year’s winner, “Pig in a Cloud” — a concoction of pineapple, marshmallows, coconut, cherries and of course, Spam.

“Kind of makes you shudder,” Wood admits. “Fortunately for me, I usually get the entrees. When you get into the salads and the gelatins is where it gets a little suspect.”

Wood’s Spam judging career began as a dream. No, really.

“My best friend in the world was also my roommate at Baylor. We were sitting around talking one day saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we became this or that?’ and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we became State Fair judges?’”

But the dream fell by the wayside, and the two friends never did anything about it. They graduated from college, were married and started families.

One year, unbeknownst to him, Wood’s wife decided to enter a stocking she had made for him in one of the State Fair’s competitions. Wood says his wife thought it would be an incentive for him to get a move on realizing his dream.

Sure enough, it was.

She took him to look at the stockings, and he immediately recognized the one she had made.

“I said, ‘Now I’m motivated. If my wife can win 2nd place in the State Fair of Texas, then I can make my dream happen.’”

So Wood started e-mailing and calling the fair’s Creative Arts center. He finally got a call back from the director, who told him all of the judging positions were full, except one: Oven Roasted Turkey Spam.

Wood jumped at the opportunity, even though he admits he never even knew that kind of Spam existed.

“I said, ‘I’ll do it, no problem. Sign me up. I’m in.’”

So Wood finally got his chance to be a State Fair judge. But unfortunately, his best friend didn’t — at least not yet.

But then, after his first time judging, the Creative Arts department asked Wood if he had any friends who also might like to judge. He recommended his friend, and their dream was finally fulfilled.

            Each year, though he has moved up the ranks enough to judge other contests, such as canning, barbecue, and even chocolate, Wood returns to the Spam stadium. 

            “It’s such a fun way to participate in something I have enjoyed since I was a kid.”

The Fair, he means, not eating crazy Spam creations.

 


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