Fair weather, fair food, free entry draw a crowd

Families flocked to the Stanislaus County Fair on Sunday, taking advantage of a “Free ’til 3” early entry promotion opening the door to good times and calories. Gates open Monday at 5 p.m.

Corn dogs, ice cream and milkshakes from the 4-H booth made up the menu for Martha Solis of Turlock and family, waiting for a turn to fly drones. “They’re really excited,” she said as 8-year-old Junior Solis jumped up and down. His favorite thing so far? “The video games,” he said.

“I can only imagine growing up with all this. Ten to 15 years ago this wasn’t around,” said Pedro Zamora of Modesto, watching son Daniel, 8, zoom his drone around a netted enclosure. “It’d be nice to be his age right now and have all this cool stuff,” Zamora said a little wistfully.

This year’s free fun in the Kid Zone has drones, video games and plenty of hands-on puzzles to solve. Just outside, kiddie rides offer spinning teacups, a small merry-go-round and other classics. The Kids Club Educational Program has passports for ages 4 to 12.

At the other side of the fair, teens, tweens and youngsters in 4-H and FFA have taken up residence beside their animals, ready to answer kids’ very practical questions. The petting zoo got slightly clogged with strollers Sunday, with eager little hands reaching out to touch. The 4-H Farmyard Experience includes posters with animal information or riddles such as “Which side of the chicken has the most feathers?”

Between the kid triangle points of animals, games and rides on the midway is the fair food zone. Local favorites are back, offering an international assortment of kebabs, linguica, chow mein, Cajun sausage sandwiches and chile verde burritos, as well as Latif’s all-American apple pie and root beer floats.

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars booth, lines were long for what those in line called the fair’s best burgers. “This has been the best year after year,” said Gary Soderstrom, standing patiently with his wife, Theresa.

“We always come two to three times while the fair’s open. We always get funnel cake, the gyro, and he always has his corn dog,” Theresa added.

Local vendor Mariah’s Fair Treats has taken funnel cakes to the next level, with a funnel cake bacon cheeseburger. “It taste like a breakfast burger. You have to have the syrup on it,” said booth worker Haley Rios of Turlock.

Funnel cake with strawberries, ice cream and whipped cream appealed to the Shahbazian family of Turlock. “With kids, you’ve got to start with dessert first,” said mom Frankie Shahbazian. “Hopefully we’re going to work our way to corn dogs,” added dad Patrick Shahbazian.

Fair food is known for its generous calorie counts and, without some comparison shopping, sticker shock.

The Bledsoe family, munching on extra large corn dogs and a mountain of curly fries, said their first fair meal in three years cost $64. “For a family of five, it’s insane,” said Lindsay Bledsoe of Modesto.

A few tables away, Monica Rivera of Turlock and her extended family were sharing a selection of barbecue favorites, including a massive turkey leg, tri-tip dinner with beans, and chicken wings. The tab came to $70 for Rivera and her five children, she said, adding with a laugh: “We’re a big family, so we’re used to it.”

For Amelia Cavallini, snacking on fried pickle slices, the day at the fair was her first time back in 20 years. Sharing her pickle pile, Sabrina Speckman, 14, said she liked the fair, but the pickles were “just OK.”

At another booth, Manny Faria of Hilmar ate fresh oysters with barbecue sauce with father-in-law Korg Rocha of Gustine. He had not come to the fair expecting to be chowing down on seafood but, Faria said, “I like oysters.”

For Christina Crum of Ceres, however, a bowl of berries from the farmers market display was a refreshing change from the burgers and corn dogs. “I’m a 4-H leader and I’m here all week,” she said.

Also eating lighter fare, mostly, is fair CEO Matt Cranford, who said he likes the “healthy bread” available at the cinnamon roll booth. His first Stanislaus County Fair is going well: “We’ve had phenomenal weather, which helps,” he said.

Also popular is a new lounge in the main exhibit building for young women offering free hairstyling and natural-look makeup. By midafternoon Sunday, 358 visitors had stepped into the “empowHER Lounge,” with its focus on positive messages and building confidence through makeovers and evening speakers provided by the Women’s Education and Leadership League.

“It’s transformation. It just makes you feel good about yourself,” said stylist Chris Martin as he spun Mya Glancy, 14, in her chair.

Styled and coiffed, the ladies are invited to sit on a pink couch for selfies and a Polaroid shot to put on on the wall with a positive message. Some pictures that were already up proclaimed “Talented,” “Tenacious,” “Fantabulous” and “Big great smile.”

The fair continues through July 17, which will also be a “Free ’til 3” Sunday. Oh, and for those still wondering which side of the chicken has the most feathers: the outside, of course.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin