Riverside County Fair and Date Festival
The county fair has always been a place to bring a date, but at the Riverside County Fair you can eat them. The Riverside County Fair was once part of the triumvirate of local autumn fairs which included the Orange County and Los Angeles County Fairs, but since the fair is held in conjunction with the annual date festival it is now held in February to mark the end of date harvesting season. The fair and Date Festival have been held in the same location in Indio, California for over 65 years and is constantly expanding. The Coachella Valley region (and Indio in particular) has been one of the world’s major date producers since just after the turn of the 20th century, blossoming from a few date palms transplanted from Algeria. The climate is perfect for date growing; all that was needed was good irrigation (date palms drink a considerable amount of water) and once that was supplied the region became the largest date producer outside of the Middle East. The fair features your standard county fair attractions: vomit-inducing rides, fried foods and meat, livestock barns and a hall displaying gems and minerals, but it differs where it embraces a Middle Eastern and date theme. In a domed hall looking like a giant sound stage (and impossibly named the Taj Majal), dates of all varieties are on display, each type sealed by the grower and submitted for judging for awards. Glass cases show off baked goods made with dates and in the middle of the hall there is an area where cooking demonstrations are held featuring the sweet fruit.
On the day I attended, Executive Chef Brent Pollock of Jackalope Ranch in Indio, California demonstrated how to make date hors d’oeuvres with slightly grilled medjool dates sitting atop crostini with a camembert/gorgonzola blend, prosciutto and a drizzle of honey. The flavor was astounding with an explosion of textures and contrasts in sweetness and rich, smooth smokiness from the cheese and ham. The fair traditionally crowns a Queen Scheherazade (this year’s winner is Anna Acosta), who was present in the Taj Majal with her court of Princess Dunyazade (Haley Glass) and Princess Jasmine (Mylea Wilson) to hand out samples to an eagerly awaiting audience. The pageant takes place in the fall, when local girls compete for scholarships by presenting speeches in business attire, and correctly answering questions about date cultivation and harvesting as well as the history of the fair. Since the 1940s the fair has been held in the current location which is owned by the city; there is a small date palm grove on the grounds. Food is typical fair grub, with a few exceptions. One woman had a half Tostito bag filled with cucumbers, onions, chili, lime, Tostitos and Clamato – I’ve eaten some strange things at fairs but this had “Danger” written all over it. Although major date producers such as Shields Date Gardens and Oasis Date Gardens were present, the date options were unusually scarce. One person told us that one of the vendors was selling deep-fried dates, which turned out to be the infamous Chicken Charlie (purveyor of the deep-fried Twinkies and Krispy Kreme chicken sandwich at the Los Angeles County Fair). Unfortunately, Chicken Charlie was not attending the 2011 fair, but efforts are being made to bring him in next year. Neither Shields nor Oasis had date shakes, but Santa Rosa Date and Fruit Company featured date shakes made with date paste (as opposed to using the date crystals as is the case with Shields); it was less sweet and smoother than Shields’ with a strong date taste and easy to finish.
For years one of the big draws to the fair and date festival has been the camel races, but in recent years they have expanded to feature other animal races as well. The first race held is the ostrich races, with jockeys weighing less than 150 pounds mounting the gigantic birds and trying to get them out of the gate and once around the short track. The ostriches are also harnessed to chariots and guided with brooms, but in both cases they appeared to have a mind of their own and it is with luck that they finish the race at all. A new feature has several riders racing zebras, which are tame but also don’t appear to have any sense of urgency about completing the race. Three children are chosen from the audience with each getting to herd an Australian emu down the track for a prize (a free camel ride), and toddlers get to corral roosters a short distance over a finish line. The camels are the last to race, and if there’s a NASCAR or air show moment waiting to happen, it will most likely occur with the camels. None of the animals racing seemed to have a competing spirit, let alone any desire to go in any semblance of organization around the track – a few of the ostriches and camels ended up wandering around in the mud wallow at the end of the track.
After the races there is an opportunity to wander across the fairgrounds to an area where the kids can have pony rides, or more spectacularly $5 camel rides. Just in case you’re envisioning a dromedary barreling down the midway, the camels used for the rides are not racers, and they maintain a slow, steady pace two laps around a small grassy oval. I am not embarrassed to admit that I rode a camel, and was surprised that it was calm and safe. I asked the handler who was leading the camel if he had ever eaten camel meat and he confided that he did not, but would if it were available (I could think of several also-rans that would probably make a nice roast that would feed about 80 people after the race).
In comparison to the other big Southern California fairs (the Los Angeles and Orange County Fairs), the Riverside County Fair and Date Festival is considerably smaller, but when you consider the educational factor of learning about and tasting a wide variety of locally grown dates, slurping down a tall, thick, frosty date shake, attending cooking presentations and cheering on your favorite desert beast in the races, the Riverside County Fair makes for a fun day out. The February timeframe also guarantees you won’t roast in the sun like a Medjool. Don’t forget to bring a date, although you shouldn’t have a problem picking one up there.
NOTE: Admission to the Riverside County Fair was provided by the event coordinator. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.