Speaking as an avid fair-goer, nothing compares to the atmosphere you find at the Big E (short for the Eastern States Exposition). As the 6th largest agricultural fair in the country, and the largest in New England, the Big E is an annual whirlwind of food, rides, entertainment, animals, crafts, shopping, contests, and just about everything in between, beginning on the second Friday after Labor Day and running for a glorious seventeen days in West Springfield, Massachusetts. The seventeen days of the Big E are my favorite of the entire year, as there truly is no better place to enjoy the sights, sounds and flavors of fall in New England than at the Big E.
Seeing as the Big E is just that… BIG – I am going to do a separate how-to post on each section of the Big E. We’ll start at the core – and my personal favorite – the Avenue of States. It features replicas of all six New England state buildings with local foods, products, crafts and vacation information specific to each state. Similar to national embassies, the state buildings and the land on which they sit are owned by the respective state and are administered by representatives from each state’s police force during the fair. (This means if you’re feeling lucky – you can play the lottery in six states without ever getting in your car!) The avenue is open from 10:00am to 9:00pm daily.
The best way to see all six state buildings is to start at the New Hampshire building and weave your way through each building, following the flow of foot-traffic to the other end – finishing up with the Rhode Island building. I’ll give you a run-down of each state building’s highlights.
In New Hampshire, you’ll find the best kettle corn available at the Big E. Don’t be fooled by the carnival-like stands throughout the rest of the fairgrounds – the hot, fresh kettle corn in New Hampshire is a notch above the rest. If you don’t believe me… just stop off for a generous free sample of the airy, salty-sweet kernels and I’m sure that you will be persuaded.
For corn in a more conventional form, you can grab an ear of hot buttered corn on the cob – nothing says ‘New England Fair’ more than walking around with food that really shouldn’t be hand-held, getting butter smeared on your face with each bite.
My cats would never forgive me if I didn’t stop off and get them new catnip pillows, on sale 3 for $7.00. If you end up with more catnip pillows than cats – store the extras in the freezer to keep them nice and fresh.
New this year is Zach’s mac and cheese, I can’t say where their mac and cheese falls on the comfort food scale, as I didn’t try any yet myself (it’s a personal gateway food of mine, it would just be downhill from there people)… but I did notice that not only was Zach himself cooking up small batches of mac and cheese, but his brother and cousin were working the register. Honestly, I am sold based off of adorable familial support alone!
As a Connecticut native, I must say I am impressed with the improvements that have been made this year in our state building. When you first enter, there are classic vices available on either side. To your right there are free wine samples from the Connecticut Wine Trail. Like a good Mom-to-be, I didn’t indulge in the samples… but I can say from experience that the wine trail certainly has some wonderful wineries. If you’re a wine lover then you are going to want to wrestle through the crowd to get your samples.
To your left, you can view cigars being rolled with genuine Connecticut tobacco leaves as the wrappers. Did you know that Connecticut grows the most sought-after cigar wrappers in the world? Cuba and the Dominican Republic use Connecticut wrappers for their high-grade cigar filling. You can even purchase freshly rolled cigars in a variety of “flavors”.
One of the main features is the LEGO exhibit, where you can let your inner kid run free! Follow up your play time with a sweet treat of maple bacon ice cream at J. Foster’s. Certainly, you could indulge in a more traditional flavor – but “crazy” foods are one of the things the Big E is famous for.
Speaking of crazy foods – if you are feeling adventurous I highly recommend taking on “Skippy’s Dare”, a white pizza with provolone, peanut butter and bacon available at Wooster Street Pizza. Peanut butter and bacon… with cheese?! A stroke of pure genius if you ask me.
Although I am partial to the Connecticut building, being a nutmeg-er myself… the clear front runner of Avenue of States is Vermont. When you first enter, on your right is Cabot Cheese, handing out samples of all of their cheese varieties. Make sure to sample the special Big E cheddar that is only available for the seventeen days of the fair!
If you’ve ever wondered the difference between all the different grades of maple syrup, now is the time to figure out which one suits your palate best. While on your foot-tour of Vermont, you can try all four grades of syrup and gather a multitude of maple goodies to bring home.
Ben and Jerry’s has a stand at the end, but really – when we’re talking about all the amazing food available at the Big E, who has time for Ben and Jerry? C’mon guys… you didn’t even create a special Big E flavor. Let me know when you do. Until then, skip ‘em and indulge in Ben and Jerry’s at home cuddled up on the couch in your pajamas.
My most loved Big E food is next, at Cold Hollow Cider Mill… fresh, hot cider donuts. Grab a few and a cup of cold apple cider (trust me, you’ll need the cider… these donuts are so dense with cinnamony goodness that you will be dying of thirst). Every year I dream of these donuts until the glorious day that I finally get my hands on them again! YUM!
Across from my beloved cider donuts, is the Vermont Flannel Company. A bit pricey… but undoubtedly the softest, coziest flannel items I have ever laid my hands on.
You can get more of your apple fill with a serving of apple pie with a slice of Cabot cheese on top (classic, if you haven’t ever tried it this way – do it) or a scoop of vanilla ice cream (if you’re feeling bad about skipping Ben and Jerry’s).
There is also American Flat Bread Wood Fired Pizza, which sells a bunch of varieties of thin crust pizza with fresh veggies and lean meats. You can wash the pizza down with a cold beer from Long Trail Brewing Company right next door. If you aren’t sure which brew you’d like best, the staff there are very knowledgeable and can help you decide on the perfect brew for you.
Before you leave, you should stop for a bacon s’more… they are so delicious that my husband made a household decree after trying them, “All s’mores in our house shall have bacon!”. I agree!
The Maine building is famous for its baked potatoes, which really are as good as they are rumored to be – just look at the long lines outside the building every day. Don’t be discouraged, the line does move fairly quickly!
Maine also features wild blueberry pie and crisp with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (if you haven’t gotten your fill of pie yet), smoked salmon on-a-stick at Sebastian’s Smokehouse (they usually sell out towards the end of the fair, so if you have your heart set on the on-a-stick fare I’d say you should visit sooner rather than later), and Wicked Whoopies whoopie pies – which have more flavors available than I really thought possible for a whoopie pie.
Right outside the house is The Original Pulled Pork Parfait truck, which offers a mini bucket layered with BBQ baked beans, followed by pulled pork and topped with BBQ sauce. I must say I am more partial to the ‘pulled pork sundae’ at the food stands (they have mashed potatoes in theirs!). So… I’d wait and get your pork elsewhere.
Then comes Massachusetts, which I hate to say – is the least exciting of the state buildings. They do have some redeeming qualities though, Finnish Pancakes sold by Finn Cakes, Massachusetts lobster rolls, and Pittsfield Rye – which has a ton of freshly baked breads for sale. Seriously people, it is really damn good bread. They even have chocolate bread! Yum.
Finally, you’ll arrive at Rhode Island. My husband’s most loved Big E food can be found here – Kenyon’s Clam Fritters. They really load up your wax paper bag with as many fritters they can cram in there, and then a few more for good measure. You can also get yourself a bread bowl full of roasted corn and shrimp chowder or classic clam chowder. Next door, Duffy’s Tavern and Tucker Seafood offers up clam cakes, clam chowder and a very popular Quahog Chili.
Across the way is The Chocolate Gourmet. Based in Warwick, Rhode Island, the chocolate company sells candy apples, fudge, a vast array of chocolates, and various nuts (spiced and classic). My Dad, the nut-connoisseur, always has to grab a bag of mixed cinnamon nuts to crunch on.
For some refreshment before you head out to the rest of the Big E, stop at Del’s for a soft frozen lemonade.
This is just a sample of some of the things you can expect to see, and no two trips to the Big E are the same. All the more reason to go again and again! See you at the Big E!