More American Than Apple Pie

The phrase “as American as apple pie” describes something or someone that is typical of the U.S. or the people of the U.S., so is a first-place apple pie then even more American than just any ordinary everyday apple pie?

Winning Apple Pie

Winning Apple Pie at the County Fair

My visit to the rural county fair of Amador County, CA was entertaining and provided plenty of cliches of the “typical” America. Amador County might be better known for its many wineries (where I spend way too many weekends), but I am glad we skipped the typical wine tasting this time and checked out the county fair although this was the second fair in as many days. This particular fair was my favorite one I have been to in California because I found all the small cliches associated with rural (Western) America. Half a building was dedicated to prize-winning pies, cookies, and other deserts locked behind glass in display cases. How am I supposed to appreciate the first-place peanut butter cookies without tasting them?? Which leads to my next question: how does one become a judge for the baked goods at a fair?

More Winning Desert Entries at the Fair

More Winning Desert Entries at the Fair

Even tomatoes and onions and zucchinis could win prizes, which was rather baffling; they all looked the same and I cannot imagine one red onion tasting so much better than another red onion (maybe I am not cut out to be a food judge after all).

Winning Vegetables

Winning Vegetables

Of course, there was the obligatory rodeo, which meant more cowboy hats in one place than I have ever seen – and thus another stereotype of America to check off. I am wondering whether there is a special term for a group of cowboys: a posse, a band, a cabal (even if this group is not plotting)…

Cowboys Waiting for the Team Roping Event at the Rodeo

Cowboys Waiting for the Team Roping Event at the Rodeo

I think deep down the chance of seeing/experiencing what I thought America and especially the West was like before I moved here from Europe explains my fascination with rodeos and fairs. The tally for this year so far: three different fairs, two different bull riding events, and one rodeo – but the year is not over yet and there are still plenty of events to come to enjoy the “typical” America.

Longhorn at the California State Fair

Longhorn at the California State Fair

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Europe’s Fascination with the Wild West

Actor Pierre Brice in his role as chief Winnetou in the movies based on Karl May’s novels about the American West (found on http://www.dw.de)

On June 6, 2015, French actor Pierre Brice, an actor I have seen in plenty of movies when growing up in Austria, passed away. He was most famous – at least in Austria and Germany – for his portrayal of Winnetou, a fictitious Mescalero Apache chief, in eleven movies based on novels by German author Karl May. Winnetou, and thus also Pierre Brice, shaped for many German and Austrian teenagers their view of Native Americans and the American West. Karl May portrayed Winnetou as the noble savage, who fights for justice and peace hand in hand with his white friend and blood brother, Old Shatterhand (portrayed by Lex Barker in the movies). It is rare for someone who grew up in Austria not to remember the Karl May books or the Winnetou movies. And even though plenty of readers learned about the West based on these novels, Karl May had never been there but relied on others’ descriptions for his books.

Karl May’s book at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011 (found on http://www.commons.wikimedia.org)

Pierre Brice’s passing last weekend reminded me of an article I recently found in an old copy of the magazine American Cowboy in a stack of reading materials left behind by former tenants in a California beach rental. The article “The Widest Loop” by Lauren Feldman in the April/May 2013 issue of the magazine highlighted and analyzed Europeans’ fascination with the American Wild West and the idealization of the cowboy culture. And it is so true; every time I drive from the Munich airport home to Austria, I pass a theme park called Pullman City in Bavaria. It looks pretty much like any old town in the Western U.S. but with shows such as Native American pow wows, Western shows (lasso tricks), American history shows (Gold Rush and Pony Express), line dancing and more. So it is not much of a surprise that I drag my husband to pretty much every rodeo or bull riding event in town and have been to pow wows here in California.

Lucky Luke and his horse Jolly Jumper by Belgian cartoonist Maurice De Bevere (found on devianart.net)

The article, however, reminded me that this fascination seems to be very typical for Europeans. According to Feldman, for Europeans struggling with the effects of Industrialization and Imperialism, the American Wild West was a welcomed escape. In 1946, Belgian artist Maurice De Bevere created the cartoon Lucky Luke about an American cowboy who “could draw faster than his shadow” and his loyal and smart horse Jolly Jumper. Italian artists Gian Luigi Bonelli and Aurelio Galleppini created the comic series Tex, based on a cowboy hero. Even though kids might have never been to the American West, they have grown up with it via books, cartoons, movies, and theme parks. Interest in Western riding and horses as well as rodeo events has been growing in Europe, and as Feldman points out in her article “the language of cowboy is universal.” So now I know: I can’t help it; my fascination with Western boots and rodeos came with my European upbringing.

Rows of Western boots line a local store

Rows of Western boots line a local store

Cowboy hats for sale at the local store

Cowboy hats for sale at the local store

County Fair

Pig Races at the County Fair

Pig Races at the County Fair

I have always loved the county and state fairs even though they have been scaled back here in California (I am guessing because they are not that popular anymore). I have already loved fairs as a kid in Austria, and the American fairs and the Austrian fairs (Volksmesse) are quite similar. Both offer carnival rides, performers, livestock displays, sales people pitching cars and salad spinners and cleaners that can get rid of any stain, and crowds.

Livestock at Display at the County Fair

Livestock at Display at the County Fair

Two differences are the fair foods and the events. Austrian fair food is heavy on bratwurst and sauerkraut, gingerbread hearts, caramelized almonds, and of course beer. Even though most of that exists here as well, American fairs are known for deep-fried food, and I have learned that anything can be deep fried: candy bars and cheesecake and even Nutella. Deep fried Nutella is  basically a warm doughnut filled with gooey Nutella; warm sugar and fat on a stick – what could be better!

Everything Can Be Deep Fried

Everything Can Be Deep Fried

Deep Fried Food at the Fair

Deep Fried Food at the Fair

Another difference is the events. The last fair I went to had piglet races, a rodeo, and a special bull-riding performance. These events also mean more cowboy hats and Western-style boots than I have ever seen in Austria (and not a single pair of lederhosen in sight). As typical for the U.S., the anthem is also played at the beginning of the rodeo and I cannot remember hearing the Austrian anthem at any fair.

Cowboy Leaving the Arena after Being Bucked Off by the Bull

Cowboy Leaving the Arena after Being Bucked Off by the Bull

Some Bulls Buck the Rider but Refuse to Leave the Arena

Some Bulls Buck the Rider Off but Refuse to Leave the Arena

In contrast to the large bull riding events, where professional athletes  can earn millions of dollars (pro-rider Silvano Alvez has earned 5.5 million USD so far in his career), riders at county fair events are often high school or college riders, which still boggles my mind. I learned that quite a lot of colleges actually offer rodeo scholarships and plenty offer varsity rodeo teams, including three schools in California. To me, bull riding seems a lot more dangerous than football, and I am surprised that it is a high school sport, but I guess riders have to start at some point.

Before the Rodeo Begins

Before the Rodeo Begins

Sitting so close to the fence, I was impressed and fascinated by the sheer size of the bulls but especially their agility; they can jump so high and twist and turn while in the air even though they weigh 1,500 lbs or more. I cannot believe anyone is willing to get onto one of the beasts. The rodeo, and especially the bull riding, is definitely a major difference between the typical Austrian and the typical Californian fair.

After Bucking Off the Cowboy

After Bucking Off the Cowboy

Bull Waiting to be Transported to the Next Event

Bull Waiting to be Transported to the Next Event