By Ethan Forman
---- — TOPSFIELD — And you thought it was all about giant pumpkins, midway rides and Hot Chelle Rae.
In fact, one of the biggest reasons that people flock to the Topsfield Fair, braving the Route 1 traffic, the lines and the crowds, is for the savory smoked turkey legs, funnel cakes sprinkled with powdered sugar and sweet, billowy cotton candy.
This fall, the Essex Agricultural Society’s Topsfield Fair, which bills itself as “America’s oldest,” is finally embracing the truth, with the catchphrase: “It’s all about the food!”
“Because who doesn’t love the food at the fair?” said Topsfield Fair spokesman David Thomson during a press conference yesterday highlighting upcoming attractions for the fair, which runs from Friday, Sept. 28, through Columbus Day, Oct. 8.
New to this year’s lineup of calorie-infused belt-busters are “pigs in mud,” chocolate-covered bacon on a stick sprinkled with jimmies; and fried bubble gum, which is marshmallow encased in funnel cake dough and sprinkled with bubble gum powder. (The fair also has plenty of healthy options, too.)
If you want to work off some pounds and give yourself an excuse to indulge at the fair later on, you can join in the fair’s first-ever 5K road race to benefit the Essex Agricultural Society’s college scholarship fund. The race is being run Sept. 23, a week before the fair opens, with the cost to register $25. Go to www.Topsfieldfair.org to register.
“Last year, we gave out $25,000 in scholarships ($1,000 apiece), so this is the chance to raise it even higher,” said General Manager James O’Brien. Essex Agricultural Society President Bruce Potter of Danvers said the race dovetails with the fair’s emphasis on education. High school students from across Essex County are eligible to apply.
The fair also runs educational programs, such as its Read and Win program at 43 libraries in Essex County and Southern New Hamphsire. Libraries encourage students to read a certain number of books to win fair and ride tickets, O’Brien said. About 4,300 kids took part in the program last year.
Another program gives vegetable-growing kits to 6,000 kids across Essex County, with the hope that some of that produce will make its way to the fair’s junior department.
While the mission of the fair is to educate people about agriculture, it can’t do that if people don’t show up — hence the entertainment designed to appeal to young people.
Not many young people want to see the quilts and cows, at first, O’Brien concedes. “But If you tell them you are going to have the entertainers, they do come, and maybe they will see something while they are here.”
This year’s arena concerts are definitely aimed at the teen crowd, with the Disney Channel’s “Good Luck Charlie” star Bridgit Mendler and the group Hot Chelle Rae, both performing on Oct. 6. The group Burnham, which proved to be a draw last year, will make free appearances the first Friday and Saturday.
While he may not attract the teenage set, Frankie Avalon will give a free concert on Oct. 3.
“I have to let you know,” joked O’Brien, “he’s alive and well.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Mounties and U.S. Marine Corps Band will also be performing this year.
If you caught Nik Wallenda making an historic tightrope walking across Niagra Falls in June, you can catch the Flying Wallendas in the Grandstand on Oct. 6.
As for the giant pumpkins, George Hoomis of Ipswich, co-chairman of the All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off with his wife, Mary Ann, hinted: “There’s a big one out there,” adding, “there’s more than one.”
The first place winner gets $3,000, and if it’s the biggest pumpkin grown in New England, the winner will get an extra $2,500. Anyone who is the first to grow a 2,000-pounder will win a grand prize of $10,000. The weigh-off takes place opening night, Sept. 28.
When asked if this was a good season to grow pumpkins, Hoomis said: “Been great, if you have water.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.