In North America, the first agricultural fair, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Cattle Show was started by New Englander Elkanah Watson in 1811. After this, fairs started popping up everywhere -- including the first state fair in Syracuse, NY. Of course, the purpose of them then (and now, though they’ve all added even more attractions) was to show off a specific area’s agricultural offerings.
“The fairs were started as a way to bring farmers together -- to compare notes,” says Marla Calico, President & CEO of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions. There were competitions for everything: Cattle, sheep, swine -- great! Let’s judge ‘em. Grains, plants, fruits, vegetables -- even better.
Calico says it’s this competitive nature that popularized deep-fried fair food. (Say that five times fast.) “We saw the first move into deep-fried territory (other than corn dogs, funnel cakes, and French fries) sometime in the late 1980s,” she says. “The cultural phenomenon, however, totally took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s.” In large part, she says, this is due to The State Fair of Texas’s Big Tex Choice Awards. The annual competition, which began in 2005, crowns winners in two categories each year: Most Creative and Best Taste.