Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fair Weather Friends

The past two weekends I represented Sandhill at area festivals, peddling our array of organic and tasty food products. Oct 8-9 I was at the Villages of Van Buren Fall Festival in Keosauqua IA. Lats weekend I attended the Historic Folklife Festival in Hannibal MO. While doing fairs is fun and remunerative, it also gives me a chance to observe humanity in action. What a trip!

o It's amazing how many small dogs there are in the world. When you attend country fairs, you get a better sense of it. What's more, only about two in three actually walk; the other third get toted around—to the point where it's not easy to tell who's taking who to the fair. Some travel in their own baby buggy; some in cages affixed to the front of electric wheelchairs; some ride boldly on the shoulders of their owners (the better to see what's coming); and some are tucked discreetly inside shirts or jackets, with just the inquisitive head poking out. I even saw a kid walking around with a stuffed dog being carried in his back pack, with the head jauntily leaning over his shoulder. I guess it's best to train dog toters early.

o More than one customer walked up to the table, pick up a jar of our mustard (which is school bus yellow in color), looked at the label—which has the word "Mustard" printed in bold letters, centered in the middle—and then asked, "Is this horseradish?" It is so hard to not be a wise ass in return. ("No, that's a petrified urine sample from our pet donkey, who died of despair after hearing one too many stupid questions from customers.")

o As sorghum syrup is our premier product, our top FAQ is "What's the difference between sorghum and molasses?" [The answer is that sorghum is a whole product, while molasses is the liquid residue of white sugar manufacture.] I was amused when one young fellow stumbled around trying to find the phrase "blackstrap molasses" (blackstrap is to sorghum as road tar is to motor oil) and the best he could do was ask about "back slap molasses," which, I suppose, is a sweetener so hearty that it induces the ingester to hands-on greetings with everyone they meet.

o While sorghum is just as sweet as honey, the flavor is distinctive and not everyone cottons to it right off. It's our policy to give samples of all our products and this leads to considerable merriment whenever a customer doesn't enjoy what they just put in their mouth. While no one is obliged to buy our products just because they tasted them, it's considered impolite to trash a vendor's offering and it can be awkward for the taster to find the right words to simultaneously express thankfulness for the invitation while conveying authentic displeasure with the experience. Perhaps the best line from last Sunday was a young woman who tasted sorghum for the first time, paused for a moment while her taste buds sent signals screaming to her brain, and then summarized her apologetic assessment with the firm statement, "I don't hate it." After chuckling, I advised her to leave our jars on the table unbought, for those who could muster up a stronger endorsement.

o One of the vagaries of fairs is where your booth is located relative to other vendors. This year in Hannibal we were lucky. The dominant sound near us was the amplified dulcet tones of Mark Holland
's Native American flute music—which is much more congenial then trying to cope with the raucous incitements from the rowdy bunch who hawk cowboy stew (a chili dish cooked with meat scraps) a little bit further down the road. It's exceedingly tiring trying to have conversations with customers while getting periodically drowned out by eruptions of "Are you a hungry buckeroo? Then come on down for some cowboy stew!"

• • •
Autumn fair weekends are a version of retail roulette. It all depends on the weather. This year, we were as lucky as you can get: lovely sunshine and mild temperatures for both days of both weekends. Since sales missed at fair weekends tend not to be recaptured later, good weather can double the income (plus adding considerably to the enjoyment quotient for the people sitting at the table all day). As we've been doing both fairs for decades, we're not always so fortunate. I can recall doing Keosauqua in rain squalls and Hannibal in the sleet—where the vendors outnumber the customers.

Over the years, it's a certainty that you'll get both good weather and bad. Being friends of fair weather is no guarantee that you'll have fair weather—or friends—at the fair. Which makes it all the nicer when we do, and we can devote more time to observing the quirks of humanity, and less on complaining about the quirks of the weather.

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