Friday, May 20, 2011

The Onion House

The rides themselves look more like what you’d expect at a larger county fair—“ Robert Nelson, Omaha World-Herald.

The Nebraska State Fair moved to Grand Island, news from way back when, but a columnist hoped for nicer rides.

No doubt the carnival people, who did all the heavy lifting at the old fairgrounds, might disagree with Nelson’s characterization, but who knows? Should the rides at the new State Fair be any better than the old? Is there even a measurement for such a thing? Would the old rides look newer at the new State Fair? Were they different, and what about the food?

Intuitively, carnival goers know quality, and anyone who's seen the ragtag, and threadbare Ferris Wheels in small Midwestern shows can attest to this fact. But honestly, do the workers of carnivals think about such a thing? Do they care? Wherever they work, they put things up, they take things down. It’s a job, and a lifestyle, or at least it once was a lifestyle, and one with its own traditions, food and culture. A culture that had nothing to do with frozen ice cream and pizza on a stick

In fact, many traveling carnivals once had their own “field kitchens,” a traveling
diner that appeared under trees, and other cozy places. They doubled as food stands for the townspeople, but were actually working kitchens for the “Carnies.”

Townspeople could get a hamburger there maybe, but the real food worked for the carnival people, and the successful operation of the show. And it didn’t matter where the show came to for a run; it was for the workers.

These days townspeople, and carnival workers alike, eat at fast-food restaurants when the carnival comes to town. There is popcorn and hotdogs, of course, but long gone are the healthy staples that were once the heart and soul of this life on the road. No doubt a carnival somewhere keeps its traditions alive, but the shows that travel in Iowa often come without a real kitchen, or a place to eat at all.

Once, there always seemed to be a flatiron grill (or a working frying pan) cooking something up, and at one traveling show piles of fresh grilled onions were always at the ready —a mystery to many, but not to those working with strangers.

Anyone who had the courage could find a so-so hamburger, but a customer had to ask for the onions steaming on the grill (and they cost extra).

Recent studies have shown onions, and garlic, to be a remarkable food. In fact, a decrease in certain cancers, most notably stomach cancer, has been reported by eating onions and garlic. And that is not all. According to Winston Craig, a registered dietitian who writes on the site Vegetarianism & Vegetarian Nutrition, onions are a rich source of fructo-oligosaccharides. Something called oligomers, according to Craig, that stimulate the growth of healthy bifidobacteria and suppress the growth of potentially harmful bacteria in the colon.

Onions and other allium vegetables (garlic, for example), are also rich in something called thiosulfinates, and can exhibit antimicrobial properties (they help prevent sickness). In fact, onions and garlic are highly effective against bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli. Onions are not as potent as garlic, according to Craig (the sulfur compounds in onion are only about one-quarter the level found in garlic), but many consider them yummier on the grill.

Once there were onions steaming on grills just about everywhere people gathered to eat, and for many at the old-time carnivals, it was as much a part of the experience as the rides themselves—a part of the mystery of the place, perhaps—or of a time when the importance of healthy eating had not been lost to a fast-food place.

One old timer remembered it thus: when a carnival worker came into a fast-food restaurant. His place of work just down the street. “He was talking with friends (fellow workers),” the man said. “And wasn’t feeling well. He said he hoped the fast food would help settle his stomach.”

Odds are it did not.

Once he would have found what he was looking for. No doubt he would not have given it much thought.

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to the folks at Artist|rising for the neat Ferris Wheel, and also to the folks at Bing. We trust it is okay to use these images. Finding a photo of a field kitchen at a carnival grilling onions was impossible.

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