To celebrate the return of the beloved fall festival – and the food, fun, and entertainment that comes with it – we revisit Brian Sullivan’s 2019 profile of the ride operators, vendors, and others who make New England’s largest fair possible.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Big E is back! The time-honored tradition kicked off today on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield after the 2020 affair was canceled due to the pandemic.
To celebrate the return of the beloved fall festival — and the food, fun and entertainment that comes with it — we revisit Brian Sullivan’s 2019 profile of the ride operators, vendors, and others who make New England’s largest fair possible.
Brian Sullivan, Connecting Point: Peace, calm, serenity. Three words not customarily associated with an atmosphere that can seemingly turn to this in the blink of an eye.
At this moment, though, in the early AM hours as vendors prepared their food trailers and game booths opened up like flowers unfolding their petals for the morning sun, all was quiet on the Western Front. Of course, this tranquility would be short lived. This is, after all, a carnival.
And for two weeks and three weekends in the month of September, these are the occupants of the Big E Fairgrounds in West Springfield, Massachusetts. These games, rides, and even a couple of food vendors comprise just one unit of the traveling city known as North American Midway Entertainment.
While there are several other units that tour over 20 states and four Canadian provinces, this one is special and the Big E is just one stop of many on its nearly year long sojourn.
Ed Dame, North American Midway Entertainment: This unit is the all-star unit for North America Midway. We begin in March in Miami with the Miami-Dade Youth Fair, and we travel slowly up north as it gets warmer and end up in — our summers in Chicago — but generally around Memorial Day, southern Wisconsin.
And we stay in that area most of the summer.
Brian Sullivan: And after a stopover in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, the unit then begins the home stretch with the fall leg of their tour here in Massachusetts.
Ed Dame, North American Midway Entertainment: This is like one of our most favorite fairs because the food is good. People here are friendly. We just — it’s an absolute change in weather for us, after being in Kentucky and down south.
And then we’re going to go from here to South Carolina, from South Carolina to Mobile, Alabama. And we’ll be done beginning in November in that area, in that period of time.
Brian Sullivan: Until then, it’s rides and games for anyone who wants to test their equilibrium or try to beat the odds. The expression “one born every minute” was probably born in this very setting.
On its face, the idea of forking over hard earned cash for the unlikely chance to win a stuffed animal that’s worth next to nothing may seem patently absurd. But patrons do so willingly, and the men and women behind the counters know just how to entice these moving targets.
Game Operator: C’mon in guys, I need more people sit down and race.
Brian Sullivan: While Midway does seek local help to fill out their rosters at each stop, the majority of the folks running the games and the rides are part of the touring team. Then, there’s the food.
They may be sharing the same venue here at the Big E, but most of the vendors outside the midway are individual entities running their own circuit.
Tina Doolan, Doolan Amusement: We start in Long Island. We come from Florida, and we go into Long Island. And then we come across on the ferry into New London, Connecticut, and we do a date there, right on the pier with Banquet in a Bun. And from there we go to Virginia. We go back up to Burr Plank, New York. We come back to Connecticut.
We’re everywhere, everywhere.
Brian Sullivan: Of course, it wouldn’t be a fair without that carnival dietary staple: fried dough. Or elephant ear, depending on what part of the country we’re in.
Kristina Rieder, JPB Food Stands: In Massachusetts, nobody knows what an elephant ear is, but an elephant ear is actually the same thing as fried dough.
So, when we come to Massachusetts, we just get extra signs that say fried dough so that everybody knows what it is.
Brian Sullivan: The Elephant Ear stand is just one of four food trailers that Rieder her and her family have on this strip just outside the back end of the midway. Having grown up in this life, she knows that in order to make money, they need to follow the three rules of real estate.
Kristina Rieder: You can have a stand in a bad location and not make any money at a at a really good fair, and you can have a good location and make a lot of money, so you’ve got to be very careful where you put your stuff.
Brian Sullivan: While Rieder’s tour dates and locations are similar to those of the midway, the folks at Anna’s Fried Dough started locally in the Boston area back in 1969. Their travel schedule is more regional, and they’ve been able to thrive off the sustained popularity of their product for three generations. And here’s the kicker: no trans fat.
Fried dough falls under the heading of breads and cereals in the four major food groups, and it’s just the kind of thing people expect to find in this carnival setting. But just like with the rides and games, when the Big E is over, this fried dough and the vendors who make them will be gone and onto the next leg of their tour.
Looking around, no one appears to have been tricked into thinking that the Big E is a health food exposition. There’s a reason that Cigna sets this booth up in the thick of things. It does leave the door open, though, for someone to fill the void for a crowd that may be looking for it.
Carolina Wiwchar, Scirrotto Cinnamon City: They want to have more options than just fried fair food. And so, the idea came to us to put the — everybody likes everything on a stick, anything on the stick.
So, we said, “Let’s just put some the stick and dip it in chocolate and see what happens,” and here we are.
Brian Sullivan: It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, which seems to have taken off. Cinnamon City made its mark with their savory cinnamon rolls and branched out to pulled pork stuffed corn cakes before making fruit smoothies and fruit kebabs.
Looking for vegetables, though? Go see the doctor. We all know that veggies are healthy, or at least they start off that way.
Ethan Nicholson, Dr. Vegetable: Yeah, we just take something that is pretty healthy and we we like to add the fair spin on it. So, what’s best of the fare than just to have something deep fried? And we do that with vegetables.
It’s a good snack food, and people seem to really enjoy it.
Brian Sullivan: Wiwchar’s home base is Florida,but she and Nicholson each made their way here by way of the Midwest fair circuit from Indiana and across the map eastward.
And it doesn’t stop here, but life on the road is life for them, whether it’s behind the wheel or behind the counter in their multitude of destination points.
Carolina Wiwchar: I was raised out on the road, so when I looked at carnival lights at night, it just is something that like touched my soul. So I said, “This is what I want to do.”
Ethan Nicholson: Each show is different, that’s a nice thing about traveling around and seeing different places. You just get to experience the culture of each different show.
And each one’s — like, this is one of my favorite shows that we do just because I love what they’ve done with this fair and everything about it. It’s really cool.