The cattle are picturesque, to say nothing of their owners, or perhaps I should say something of them, too. Handling the reserve champion bull in the Highland Scottish class is a chap in a kilt and a wool jersey, unkempt hair to his shoulders and a flowing beard. He is edged out for best of class by a younger fellow clad in denim, looking like he dressed himself from an R.M. Williams catalog. Judge of the class, which features beasts whose shaggy coats and sturdy frames identify their country of origin, is a woman wearing musterer’s boots, knee stockings, plaid skirt, and an Akubra hat to top it off.
Where are we, then? This has to be the Upper Clutha A & P (agricultural & pastoral) Show, Wanaka, Otago, New Zealand. An A & P show is what we in the states would call a county fair. Wanaka is a chic town in the middle of what used to be just a sheep farming district full of Scottish settlers from the Highlands. Shania Twain has a house here, but we didn’t see her.
What we did see was much that was familiar, and much that was not. Getting right to the point, what you want to know about is fair food, right? Well, you can find hamburgers and corn dogs, but if you want fries with that, then you need to look for “Hot Chips.” Cotton candy is candy floss, and a snow cone is a shaved ice. Those make easy translation, but what in the world is a “bacon butty”? Something like a BLT, it turns out.
A rumpsteak sammie is a steak sandwich, but if you’re feeling more adventuresome, try the mussel patties or whitebait fritters. (A whitebait is a little minnow-fish, looks like a translucent tadpole, with prominent eyes that look at you when you eat it, that is netted from rivers when it comes in from the ocean to spawn.)
An A & P in New Zealand is not as tacky as an American fair. Most everyone you see looks downright respectable. Another notable thing is how many people bring their dogs with them to the show. Of course, it might be hard to argue against that, since dogs are the stars of what is, hands down, the most popular event of the show: the dog trials. People watch in fascination as the dogs, most of them highly skilled, some not so, maneuver three sheep through a series of four obstacles within a ten-minute time limit. Everyone roots for every dog; when a perverse sheep breaks ranks and spoils a good bit of dog work, audible sighs and moans go up from the crowd.
Sheep are the mainstays of the livestock competitions, and the judges take this work seriously indeed. There are pens of Merinos and Romneys and Corriedales and Parendales and sheds filled with fleeces to be adjudged. The cooking demonstrations feature lamb (a butterflied leg of lamb seared on a grill is the star), and teams of visiting experts judge cuts of meat to determine who will win the coveted Glammies (which are like the Oscars for sheep meat).
Right next to the Speight’s beer tent, some old guys organize some young guys (most of whom have been drinking liberally) into a sheaf-throwing contest, which involves throwing a burlap bag of oats about twenty feet into the air over a bar with a three-tine pitchfork.
Other than curiosity, or just having a good time, there is a reason for attending the A & P, or any fair that draws on local industries and customs. A fair is a representation, a crystallization, of the rural culture from which it springs. There is an art to it. A good show, or fair, self-consciously presents itself the way it should be. By that standard, the Wanaka show is a good one.