Fair food is an art form unto itself; an exaggeration that conspicuously hints at our most hedonistic tendencies, always tipping the scales towards incredibly savory or extremely sweet. The environment of the fair permits the common sight of people nonchalantly gnawing through a comically large barbecued turkey leg, or an ear of corn slathered in mayonnaise, or greasy fries molded into the brick shape of the fry basket. This is one kind of food art: the beatific celebration of gluttony.
But the Washington State Fair offers a more literal celebration of food as art. Just look to the barns, hobby halls, and vendor tents that distract patrons between culinary escapades. Here you’ll find massive gourds overgrown to look almost alien, winners of various cooking contests (food on actual pedestals), and misshapen produce made to look like animals real and imagined. But by far the best representation of food as art comes in the form of the mural-like displays organized by Washington’s many granges.
Granges are nonprofit organizations established to promote the economic and political interests of their respective agricultural communities. Each year they compete to see who can create the most visually stunning display of Washington’s many farm-grown products.This year the displays come from ten Western Washington granges from Humptulips to Ohop. In a few cases, the displays arrive via pomonas, groups of granges from a region banded together to compete in this unique contest.
Displays range from thematic to geometric with a prescribed number of items that represent the region's agricultural landscape. Each display, in theory, should feature all or nearly all of the same ingredients—dairy, fruit, fur, and foraged goods. Each grange, then, hopes their artistic sensibilities and adept skills at arranging these products will win over the judges and the public.
This year, a display by the Lewis County Pomona with a bird theme seemed to garner the people’s favor, a grange banking on the resilience of the twee trope “put a bird on it.” Bird watching magazines and binoculars scatter in the foreground, an array of birdhouses peppered throughout, and a central pair of taxidermied birds tying the whole arrangement together.
If representational art isn’t your thing then you might gravitate towards Skagit Valley’s take on tessellations. Void of any conspicuous theme, this grange chose instead to highlight the display with vivid colors in a pattern reminiscent of a quilt. But if you want something a bit more conceptual with your food art, then the Mason County Pomona delivers with a display that I might describe as the least aesthetically pleasing of the bunch: A mound of compost adorned with red, yellow, and green spots anchors the arrangement.
When it’s time to get back to the fair food, fear not. Close by, our state’s potatoes can be found baked or fried, cucumbers pickled, honey in easily consumable stick form, and dairy both frozen and, of course, fried. The fair celebrates gluttony, yes. But also bounty; the collected efforts of our harvest season. And this is nowhere more evident than in a grange display: a snapshot of our state in its colorful glory.
Editor’s Note: Jeremy Buben is curator of the FoodArt Collection, a mobile art exhibit. View it online or at October’s Capitol Hill Art Walk on Thursday, October 12.