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By GWEN SISSON
For Philadelphia natives, the Neshoba County Fair is a hometown homecoming. And at every homecoming, thereâs always a lot of great food and family togetherness.
For Starkville resident Barbara McLaurin, the Neshoba County Fair is like a summer Thanksgiving event.
âItâs the only time of the year that we see some of our relatives, friends and former classmates,â McLaurin said. âItÂ allowsÂ us a time to slow down and enjoy each otherâs company. It takes us back to a simpler time. My siblings and their familiesÂ come together for a week of porch-sitting, good food,Â staying up way past bedtime,Â early-morning walks, afternoon naps, playing board games, laughter and memories.â
And just like Thanksgiving, there are certain foods friends and family have just come to expect during Fair Week. For McLaurin and her family, they love Dorisâ Company Casserole,Â Mediterranean Chicken Spaghetti, Company Squash,Â Spinach Madeleine and Momâs Frozen Strawberry Salad.Â
Although they have modified some ingredients over the years, they are basically the tried-and-trueÂ recipes from many years of Fair-going.Â Â
âWe add new dishes each year, butÂ these are the ones thatÂ family and friends have looked forward to each year, someÂ forÂ almost 50 years,â McLaurin said.Â âWe supplementÂ with lots of seasonal vegetables,Â fruits, pickles and relishes. AÂ fabulous cake baker in Philadelphia makes our desserts. My sisters and sister-in-law and I allÂ enjoy cookingÂ for the Fair.â
This will be McLaurinâs first year at the Fair without her mother, so one of her sisters and aÂ sister-in-law will carry onÂ tradition by making her recipes.
The whole family loves anything with seasonal fresh vegetables,Â whether it be the Company Squash,Â Eggplant ParmesanÂ for Tuesday nightâs Roman HollowDay orÂ slicing tons of home-grown tomatoes.Â Â
âWe try to get all of our casseroles in the freezer well before the Fair starts,â McLaurin said. âDinner at the Fair is often for a crowd, so it takes lots of food to get through the week.â
One of McLaurinâs favorite events at the Neshoba County Fair is Tuesdayâs Roman HollowDay, a tradition on their Fair Street, Happy Hollow.
âRoman HollowDay is...an annualÂ Italian buffet complete withÂ ItalianÂ musicÂ andÂ RomanÂ togas, often made from bedsheets pulled off beds,â McLaurin said.
She also enjoysÂ sitting with her sisters in the front porch swing very early in the morning with a steaming cup ofÂ hot coffee.Â
âIt isÂ cool and quiet, and we get most of the worldâs problems solved,â McLaurin said.
At lunch on Thursdays, McLaurin invites all of her Starkville friends to stop by the cabin for lunch. She said the Starkville bunch varies greatly each year with a nice mix of Fair veterans and ânewbies.â
âWe love to see the reactions of those who have never been,â McLaurin said. âAlways fun to hear what they thought it was going to be like and what it wasÂ really like. Some love it and look forward to coming back;Â othersÂ have a âprevious commitmentâÂ every year from nowÂ on! Thatâs okay too, as the Fair does not appeal to everyone.Â But for those of us who consider it a magical place,Â we areÂ like homing pigeons every July.â
One of McLaurinâs favorite memories growing up wasÂ sitting in the race track bleachers and watching the sun come upÂ on the final Thursday night.Â
âCanât understand it now, butÂ thatÂ was a big deal as a teenager,â McLaurin said. Â
Seeing Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the Fair in 1980 was another highlight.
âWe stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the racetrack waiting for them to appear on stage,â McLaurin said. âWhile waiting, there was aÂ brief but heavy summer thunderstorm. Nobody moved from their vantage pointÂ in anticipation of the Reagans.âÂ
Their cabin is the Glenn Perry Family cabin in Happy Hollow. It was built in 1960 by McLaurinâs fatherâs construction company in just 10 days.Â Â
âAt the time, my youngest sister was a baby, so Mom insisted on having a hot water heater put in the cabin, a rarity then,â McLaurin said. âMother had invited the preacher toÂ dinner on the first day of the Fair.Â She toldÂ us ofÂ standing on the front porch, with a baby under one arm, a lemon cake under the other, anticipating the preacherâs arrival, while theÂ carpentersÂ were still insideÂ finishingÂ the cabin.âÂ Â
The cabin is two-story, with twoÂ bedrooms and a sleeping porch.Â McLaurin said it easily sleeps 16, but they have slept more. It wasnât until last year that we added a second bathroom. Before that time, as many as 25 people had one bathroom to use.
Â âWhen Mac and I married, my dad added air conditioning to get my husband to come to the Fair,â McLaurin said. âHe is from the Delta and couldnât understandÂ the joy inÂ staying in an un-air conditioned cabin in a MississippiÂ July. Now that we have air conditioning, he loves the Fair.â
McLaurinâs son was four months old when heÂ went to his firstÂ Fair. He was there for theÂ entire week and has been aÂ regular Fair-goer ever since.Â
McLaurinâs sister, Sylvia Gasa, lives in Pensacola, Fla. and comes every year to the Neshoba County Fair.
âAs long as I can remember, one of our traditions is to start off the fair with a Friday night hamburger supper,â Gasa said. âThe ladies take care of the usual side dishes; baked beans, potato salad, and watermelon, and the men handle the grill. This year, Barbaraâs son Prentiss was our grill-master.â
Gasa said another food tradition involves desserts. Friends and family may have more than one dessert per meal, but only during Fair Week.
âWe always buy four or five homemade cakes from a lady in Philadelphia,â Gasa said. âThe Seven-Layer lemon cake, carmel cake, chocolate cake, and a variety of other sweets are always on the menu.â