California Fair Is Homemade Harvest Tradition

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At the harvest fair, it's all about the pie.

Thick slabs of creamy buttermilk custard, homegrown peach, tart boysenberry and local raisin walnut with a lattice crust top. All made by the hundreds, by hand.

While some fairs draw crowds for their deep-fried Twinkies, the District Fair in Caruthers, a town of 2,103 in California's raisin region, serves up mainly locally grown food that is assembled for sale by the dozen or so churches and service clubs whose emblems hang on the town's giant welcome sign.

From lawnmower races at the Wilkes County Agricultural Fair in North Carolina, to tractor pulls in Medina County, Ohio, to the sunflower seed mural of Yosemite's Half Dome in Caruthers, a community's annual harvest celebration is a reflection of its personality and _ at the best ones _ a reflection of its values.

Some are endless kiosks of traveling Sham-Wow and gadget salesmen, and others, like Caruthers, hearken back to a time when life was simpler.

"This is the final stop for agriculture," says Pastor Art Kalafut of Monmouth Church, which has the singular distinction of having occupied a pie booth for each of the fair's 80 years.

Kalafut, at the register, also says things such as "They say Pi-r-squared, but our pie are round." Even after 30 years pushing pies, a joke about the equation for the area of a circle never gets old.

This week the 30 aging members of Kalafut's Monmouth Church say they will raise $7,000 selling handmade chicken noodle soup and 527 pies from recipes handed down for generations.

Down a few stool-lined counters, the Rock Church's 50 members will make $15,000 selling 2,600 pounds of chicken tossed into their famous Chinese salad and, of course, pies. They will sell 300 in all, along with 216 apple dumplings. Most of the other dozen booths here on food row sell pie, too.

"We make our crusts from scratch," boasts The Rock's Pat Woods, handing over a slice of peach, perfectly crimped and crunchy.

The District Fair in Fresno County is the biggest free fair in the state they declare, and no one has sued the town's bannermaker over the claim. It's also free of alcohol, though this year a home canner entered a Ball jar of pickled grapes that came dangerously close.

Schools from here to nearby Raisin City close Thursday and Friday so 4-H students can show their animals, see if their artwork won a ribbon (hint, everyone gets at least a pink one), and be there when judges reveal the most sought-after prize: the elementary school whose giant dried bean mural best exemplifies the fair's theme, "A Snapshot of America."

"Each year I think it can't get any better and it's like, wow," said Ryan Masterson, curator of the bean panels that include Mt. Rushmore in pintos and the Twin Towers exploding on 9-11 in rice, poppyseeds and black beans.

Of course, there is a queen, but the crown goes to the girl who sells the most $2 tickets for the Ford Mustang raffle. She also gets a percentage, presumably for college. Johannah Sorensen, coincidentally a striking redhead, set the record in 2007 with 48,000.

"If there ever was a good old-fashioned country fair, this is it," said Director Mark Sorensen, Johannah's father and one of 21 volunteer directors who between them have "400 years of service to the fair."

This year, Thelma Hickson, 93, won the blue ribbon for quilting. Charlene Cox's crispy bread and butter pickles, vinegary sweet and with a hint of turmeric, earned the special green ribbon for extreme tastiness, and she settled for blue for her plum and nectarine jams. Those who know her say her yard is beautiful, too.

Such connections to a long-ago life are why Caruthers native Elizabeth Gallaher Hopwood, 87, has never missed a fair, though the fair missed a few years during The Depression and World War II. In 1923, she lost the first fair's 'beautiful baby' contest to Charles Holston. In 1937, she lost a close racefor queen.

Still she has nothing but great memories and relives them with the old friends she sees here, though, she adds with a hollow chuckle, "at my age they're going fast."

Between noon Wednesday and the time the midway dims Saturday, more than 50 times the town's population will pass under the neon sign pulsing CARUTHERS District Fair. Some will enjoy it for what it represents.

And many of them will have a slice of pie.

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