Corn Dogs and Cotton Candy

Maybe it’s a Jersey brat thing. If it is, oh well, because Garden Staters can certainly be associated with a lot worse. But the land where the middle class are flayed and eaten was notorious for its carnivals, fairs, and the dominating Jersey shore boardwalks. I say “was” because the state’s amusement industry is light years away from what it was.

When it comes to the world’s first carnival, its point of origin can be linked to several different times and places. But in the U.S. the first carnival can be traced back to 1699 in New Orleans with good old Mardi Gras. I’m not sure, nor do I intend to take the time and torture you with the research, how and when the carnivals we know today stemmed from parades, masks, beads, boobs, and a whole lot of liquor. Regardless of how the phenomena started, Jersey showed up and conquered the world of family entertainment, and here’s how…

1. The Food – As a kid spending the majority of my summers with my grandmother in the northern half of the Garden State, I attended a variety of fairs and carnivals. On a side note, Morris, Sussex, Warren, and Huntington counties are basically seen as the Kentucky of the state, if not the entire northeast coast. So it made sense for the traveling merriment to find the best temporary homes in Jersey-tucky.

Now I am well aware that my state is not the only one that kicked ass at carnivals, but considering I’ve never lived in or visited any other state for any extended period of time, I am a little biased. I did live outside Ft. Lauderdale for a year in high school, but I never melded carnival magic with fire ant hills, poisonous toads, and swamp-ass humidity of south Florida living.

Anyway, we former or present carnival junkies are forever blessed with the comfort scents we cannot find anywhere else on this planet.

Everyone has that one food that they absolutely love but rarely think about. But when it comes to mind, you have to shovel multiple helpings into your pie hole or else you’ll commit a felony. For me, corn dogs, hands down, with a bed-pillow size bag of cotton candy following closely behind. Granted you can get corn dogs in the freezer section of any supermarket, but that’s like trying to pass Ellio’s rectangular pizzas off as gourmet.

Sausage sandwiches – I don’t need to say anymore.

Funnel Cake – You can smell it right now, right? The warm sweet dough and that divine confectioner’s sugar that feels like an angel’s butt cheek – can’t end the night without it, like playing Journey at closing time in a bar.

2. The Games – It’s interesting how you had a better chance at winning a prize playing the spinning wheel games than you did playing the games that required a bit of skill. The basketball hoops? You know those bastards were made of rubber. Throwing darts at balloons? Yeah, could we have maybe gotten darts that actually had a sharp point on them? 80’s and 90’s kids weren’t stabbing themselves with darts, and if they did – hey, that’s why we have natural selection.

My grandmother was the spinning wheel goddess. With her bag full of quarters, the woman walked the games section like a clairvoyant hustler. She could win me and my cousins every piece of crap made in Taiwan and never tire or waiver. I have to say the majority of my preteen New Kids on the Block fangirl merch came from her apparent telekinesis – not to mention our shopping trips to Jamesway or Caldor with grandpa’s credit cards.

Even though we could buy the items we tried to win for less money, we relished in the thrill of testing fate – a precursor to Atlantic City sin, if you will. Mirrors with band emblems on the glass, teen-idol posters (Blockheads, represent), stuffed animals as snuggly as your car’s headrest, and inflatable guitars made up the majority of the prizes. We didn’t need a damn thing, but with our parents’ money we persisted with those games as if we were going for the Pulitzer Prize.

3. The Rides – It’s known as the Gravitron, the Centrifuge, or simply the Spaceship, and I rode that thing upside down and right side up, screaming for the dude sitting at the center controls to go faster. I’m not completely sure how I don’t have a brain tumor from all of that pressure, but it could explain a lot of other issues.

That’s just one of the rides that if you think back really hard, you can still feel the pure joy and reckless abandon, forces that are near impossible to replicate. The Scrambler, the Tilt-o-Whirl, and the rickety Ferris wheel with the squeaky seats can be viewed as synonymous with white trash until the end of time. To each their own. But you more than likely haven’t had many small experiences that match that level of exuberance and freedom. I’d give up anything, right now, to feel that way again, just for one day.

I mentioned before that the carnival culture hasn’t been the same since Gen-Xers were kids. Maybe we’ve gotten too old too quickly or maybe too much has changed. Now most families can barely afford the ride tickets, the games, and the food. The last fair I went to cost me 18 bucks to get in and 22 bucks for a sausage sandwich, fries, and a Coke (in a can). I could get a steak in Manhattan for that price. Regardless of the cost, the culture, the population, and the logistics have changed. The only place we can now go to feel that same magic seems to be Disney World which can cost a kidney. Okay, so maybe some of us get plenty of thrills from Target’s impulse buying bins and being in bed by nine, but I think it’s safe to say that the kid inside us all wouldn’t mind whacking a rubber frog launcher with a mallet more often than not.


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