Let's Celebrate 100 Years of Fair Food
It's all in the family at the Hopkinton State Fair food booths.
Fair season in New England is upon us. What a wonderful way to connect with the historical agricultural roots of our region. And what better place than a state fair to eat a donut bigger than your face?
I made a trip to my hometown of Hopkinton, New Hampshire to pay a visit to the Hopkinton State Fair on its 100th anniversary. The goal was to dig a little deeper into the history of some favorite food booths, chat with vendors and 4-H-ers, and snuggle up with some dairy goats, all in the name of journalism. I’m here to report that traditional New England food culture is alive and well at the fairgrounds. I have the homemade peanut butter fudge to prove it.
In the Boston area, we're lucky to have so many producers of artisanal goods, many of whom are experimenting with traditional methods to make food “the way it was.” But before we get too nostalgic, let’s remember that there are families who have been doing it the old-fashioned way all along. These fine folks aren’t represented by PR firms, they didn’t go to culinary school and they don’t have stylized storefronts in hip neighborhoods. What they do have is a tireless work ethic and a knowledge of their craft that’s been passed down for generations. Each year, we lucky fairgoers show up to take a trip back in time and reap the delicious fruits of their labor.
Betsy’s Country Fair Donuts
Jamie Cross is manning the donut trailer on a sunny, early September afternoon. He takes a break from rolling dough to chat about the history of Betsy’s, which is named after his grandmother.
“My grandfather started this in 1965," he tells us. "My mother started working with him when she was 14.”
His mother, Donna Stevens, still works the booth, but was taking a quick stroll around the fairgrounds during our visit. Stevens's husband, Bob, steps out from the fryer to tell us a bit more.
“It’s her father's recipe," he says. "They put a lot of pride into them. She still buys the same ingredients her father did.”
Cross explains that the family started making donuts at his grandfather’s bakery, Betsy’s Sugar & Spice Baker, located in Concord, New Hampshire.
“He passed away in 1978," Cross says of his grandfather. "We had the bakery up until ’82. We’ve been doing the fairs since then.”
If you didn’t make it to the Hopkinton Fair, you can find the enormous donuts—sugar-raised, honey-dipped, chocolate-frosted, and maple-glazed—at the upcoming Deerfield and Sandwich fairs.
Be prepared to wait in line if you want to speak with Donald Nelson. His peanut brittle and homemade fudge are wildly popular. But during a quick break between customers, he’s happy to give us some history.
“Nelson’s Candy was established in Lowell Massachusetts in 1911, by my grandfather Allen Nelson, who moved from Vermont," the candy maker says. "He and my grandmother established the business in the mill district—it was all mills down there.” Nelson also reminds us how times have changed. “If you wanted to get work, you went to Lowell, not Boston," he says. "[Immigrants] came from all over the world—England, Ireland and Canada.”
At this point, Nelson breaks to serve more customers. He tells us he will go through about one ton of fudge over the weekend, “But my son is making more just in case.” To date, there have been five generations of Nelsons keeping up the business. Donald is happy his granddaughters Meghan and Nicole are helping out. The candy is made on their family farm in Albany, Vermont.
Has the recipe changed over the years?
“Absolutely not!” says the candy maker. “Hasn’t changed one bit, right down to the grain of sugar.”
Nelson and his wife will be at a few other fairs this season, Sandwich and Deerfield in New Hampshire, and the Tunbridge World’s Fair in Vermont. It's a lot of work, but the Nelsons have energy to spare.
“We are semi-retired," he says. "I’m 75 years old. I only work half-days now—12 hours.”
- The Tunbridge World’s Fair (Vermont), September 17-20
- The Deerfield Fair (New Hampshire), October 1-4
- The Sandwich Fair (New Hampshire), October 10-12
Cracked An Egg Farm
We ran into 4-H exhibitor Meaghan Page at the dairy goat show. The 17-year-old helps her family on their farm in Barrington, New Hampshire, raising several breeds of goats, chicken and sheep, plus a donkey and a cow.
“The sheep are for fleece and meat—we do our own everything, same with the goats [which are raised for dairy and meat, depending on the breed] and chickens,” says Page, who plans to continue farming after high school. She’s happy to be involved in all aspects of family farming, but says her "favorite part is coming to the fairs, showing and helping others—it’s great.”
And 4-H has taught her more than just animal-husbandry.
“It’s really helped me because I used to be really shy and now I’m not,” she says, gesturing to the voice-recorder, laughing. “I was able to step out of my shell, work with others and learn a lot about animals.”
Cracked An Egg Farm (Barrington, New Hampshire)