By GWEN SISSON
For Philadelphia natives, the Neshoba County Fair is a hometown homecoming. And at every homecoming, there’s always a lot of great food and family togetherness.
For Starkville resident Barbara McLaurin, the Neshoba County Fair is like a summer Thanksgiving event.
“It’s the only time of the year that we see some of our relatives, friends and former classmates,” McLaurin said. “It allows us a time to slow down and enjoy each other’s company. It takes us back to a simpler time. My siblings and their families come together for a week of porch-sitting, good food, staying up way past bedtime, early-morning walks, afternoon naps, playing board games, laughter and memories.”
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 Doris’ Company Casserole, Mediterranean Chicken Spaghetti, Company Squash, Spinach Madeleine and Mom’s Frozen Strawberry Salad.
Although they have modified some ingredients over the years, they are basically the tried-and-true recipes from many years of Fair-going.
“We add new dishes each year, but these are the ones that family and friends have looked forward to each year, some for almost 50 years,” McLaurin said. “We supplement with lots of seasonal vegetables, fruits, pickles and relishes. A fabulous cake baker in Philadelphia makes our desserts. My sisters and sister-in-law and I all enjoy cooking for the Fair.”
This will be McLaurin’s first year at the Fair without her mother, so one of her sisters and a sister-in-law will carry on tradition by making her recipes.
The whole family loves anything with seasonal fresh vegetables, whether it be the Company Squash, Eggplant Parmesan for Tuesday night’s Roman HollowDay or slicing tons of home-grown tomatoes.
“We try to get all of our casseroles in the freezer well before the Fair starts,” McLaurin said. “Dinner at the Fair is often for a crowd, so it takes lots of food to get through the week.”
One of McLaurin’s favorite events at the Neshoba County Fair is Tuesday’s Roman HollowDay, a tradition on their Fair Street, Happy Hollow.
“Roman HollowDay is...an annual Italian buffet complete with Italian music and Roman togas, often made from bedsheets pulled off beds,” McLaurin said.
She also enjoys sitting with her sisters in the front porch swing very early in the morning with a steaming cup of hot coffee.
“It is cool and quiet, and we get most of the world’s problems solved,” 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 “newbies.”
“We love to see the reactions of those who have never been,” McLaurin said. “Always fun to hear what they thought it was going to be like and what it was really like. Some love it and look forward to coming back; others have a ‘previous commitment’ every year from now on! That’s okay too, as the Fair does not appeal to everyone. But for those of us who consider it a magical place, we are like homing pigeons every July.”
One of McLaurin’s favorite memories growing up was sitting in the race track bleachers and watching the sun come up on the final Thursday night.
“Can’t understand it now, but that was a big deal as a teenager,” McLaurin said.
Seeing Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the Fair in 1980 was another highlight.
“We stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the racetrack waiting for them to appear on stage,” McLaurin said. “While waiting, there was a brief but heavy summer thunderstorm. Nobody moved from their vantage point in anticipation of the Reagans.”
Their cabin is the Glenn Perry Family cabin in Happy Hollow. It was built in 1960 by McLaurin’s father’s construction company in just 10 days.
“At the time, my youngest sister was a baby, so Mom insisted on having a hot water heater put in the cabin, a rarity then,” McLaurin said. “Mother had invited the preacher to dinner on the first day of the Fair. She told us of standing on the front porch, with a baby under one arm, a lemon cake under the other, anticipating the preacher’s arrival, while the carpenters were still inside finishing the cabin.”
The cabin is two-story, with two bedrooms and a sleeping porch. McLaurin said it easily sleeps 16, but they have slept more. It wasn’t until last year that we added a second bathroom. Before that time, as many as 25 people had one bathroom to use.
“When Mac and I married, my dad added air conditioning to get my husband to come to the Fair,” McLaurin said. “He is from the Delta and couldn’t understand the joy in staying in an un-air conditioned cabin in a Mississippi July. Now that we have air conditioning, he loves the Fair.”
McLaurin’s son was four months old when he went to his first Fair. He was there for the entire week and has been a regular Fair-goer ever since.
McLaurin’s sister, Sylvia Gasa, lives in Pensacola, Fla. and comes every year to the Neshoba County Fair.
“As long as I can remember, one of our traditions is to start off the fair with a Friday night hamburger supper,” Gasa said. “The ladies take care of the usual side dishes; baked beans, potato salad, and watermelon, and the men handle the grill. This year, Barbara’s son Prentiss was our grill-master.”
Gasa said another food tradition involves desserts. Friends and family may have more than one dessert per meal, but only during Fair Week.
“We always buy four or five homemade cakes from a lady in Philadelphia,” Gasa said. “The Seven-Layer lemon cake, carmel cake, chocolate cake, and a variety of other sweets are always on the menu.”