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Santa Clara County Fair: Something New and Something Old
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Attendees at the 74th annual Santa Clara County Fair enjoyed a mix of the old and the new during the fair’s run August 2nd through 5th. According to fair manager and fairgrounds director of development Valerie Merklin, the fair offered a wide range of new offerings to bring in a bigger crowd to the 2018 celebration, held in San Jose, Calif. And, there were some old classics, too.

Starting with the classic, that would be the long-promised return of Angelo’s Pepper Steak. Absent for decades, the sandwich was brought back by its creator’s sons, Fred and Mike DiPietro. Thin sliced ribeye and sweet green bell peppers was just as popular as it has ever been this year. A strong contender for the most sought-after fair food – strawberry shortcake. Also popular were corn dogs, funnel cakes, and hot dogs.

Of course, the fair was about more than food. Music played a big part in the appeal of the event this year, with Eddie Money as a headliner on Saturday the 4th. The concert was a separate admission from the fair itself, but included admission to the fair that day. Other concerts were free to fairgoers.

Fair spokesman Steve Stagnaro says “Back in 60’s and 70’s the family had a food booth that created pepper steak, had pepper steak restaurant at the fair, it went away after a while. Every year I would get requests and questions, is pepper steak coming back, and we kept trying to find family and recipe. We came across someone, and we found the two sons who had worked in their parents’ restaurant. They found dad’s hand written recipe, and they recreated it, and came back to fair this year. They sold out every day, had to close early on Sunday because they couldn’t get any more,” he laughs. “It was our food joy, because it had people lined up, someone took off work, paid $10.00 to park, $10.00 to get in to fair, paid $12.00 for the sandwich, and couldn’t have been happier. That makes me smile. The two sons were just great, it was good all the way around. It puts a smile on our faces every time we talk about it. “

The fair strove to be inclusive this year, with Thursday night’s LGBTQ-themed celebration, “Out at the Fair;”a celebration of Swades, an Indian Independence Day event; and arena concerts that spotlighted top Mexican acts on the fair’s closing day, including Grupo Laberinto, Revancha, Coyote, and El Dasa.

Other entertainment included a unique silent disco, with music playing through wireless headphones. From hidden balloon sculptures to a first-time miniature horse show and LGBTQ-themed square dancing, there was something for just about everyone to enjoy, and that’s exactly the way the fair’s staff wanted it.

“Fun for the Whole Herd” was this year’s fair motto, and the fair lived up to it. There were duck races and weiner dog races, and even a home brew competition that drew beer lovers. Cisco Jim played tunes on his guitar, strolling the fair on horseback; and Mezmer, the “Phenomenist” performed magic and stage hypnosis to wow the crowds.

Kids had plenty to do. Along with a reptile show and the chance to create a Monster Mural, the Little Hands attraction let kids practice being a farmer. Little ones were encouraged to milk a cow, plant seeds, and even take produce to a “market” to earn a dollar in fair money and learn about where their food comes from. A Puppet Theater ran shows daily, with three different subjects including a jungle theme and the 3 Little Pigs. Older kids enjoyed participating in the Wizards Challenge. This attraction allowed participants to get involved in magic-themed science, inspired by Harry Potter, but infused with learning. A live bee exhibition presented information about bees and the chance to observe the hive in action. A sea lion show was a unique addition to the fair this year; barn animal shows gave fair guests a close-up look at rabbits, cows, and horses. The reptile show was a hands-on affair, letting kids touch snakes and lizards. Kids favorites included a giant boa constrictor and tortoises.

The Thursday evening Out at the Fair event included performances by Chely Wright and a folklorico dance group, Folklorico Calibri. A series of AIDS quilt panels was also on display.

The Indian Independence Day event, Swades, was a big success for the fair. Bollywood rock star Bappi Lahiri performed a free two-hour open-air concert, and approximately 100 other local musical and dance groups showcased the sights and sounds of India, followed by a parade and the grand finale of a flag-raising ceremony. Decorations and vendors brought a true taste of India to the Swades section of the fair, and drew over 20,000 attendees, who also enjoyed the rest of the offerings on the fairgrounds. The food was special, too, with Indian food vendors bringing authentic dishes such as the savory fried dough chaat, spicy rice biryani, and the Indian rice pancake dosa to both those familiar with these dishes and people enjoying a taste for the first time. The event was the Bay Area’s largest Swades celebration.

Meanwhile, the midway sizzled with games and rides. Butler Amusements, the carnival ride provider, added additional rides this year, with a wide range of thrills for all ages. From a Rockin’ Tug to the zooming Himalaya to the Kid’s Wheel – a pint-sized version of the Ferris Wheel, there were 20 rides in all. The most popular ride proved to be the classic Ferris Wheel, which offered a full look at the fair. Unlimited ride wrist bands were priced at $25.

While rides, midway, and classic food like funnel cakes and corn dogs were all about tradition, the new events were designed to bring new attendees to the fair, according to Abe Andrade, the fair’s executive director.
“We want to be more inviting to the various cultures and communities and I think that’s the way to grow the fair,” he says.

The idea seems to have worked: although last year’s attendance was a low 24,000, this year, on Saturday afternoon, which was the fair’s busiest time, the large turnout caused organizers to post on Instagram asking people to take a ridesharing service to the fair due to high attendance. The numbers are not yet in, butoverall attendance appears to have doubled. Gate pricing was $10 for adults, $5 for children and seniors, and free to all children age 4 and younger. Parking was an additional $10.
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