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Attractions, greasy eats still abound

October 2, 2012 12:10 am


Ashley Davis, 8, cradles an Eastern king snake at the Virginia State Fair. lo1002statefairPC3.jpg

Virginia State University extension specialist Brian Nerrie handles a freshwater prawn at the state fair Monday. lo1002statefairPC2.jpg

Brayden Harris, 9, climbs on a display vehicle at fair. lo1002statefairPC1.jpg

Sculptor Ben Risney demonstrates 'extreme speed art' by shaping an owl from a log at the state fair Monday.

TAKING A deep breath, Ben Risney pulled the rope on his long-bladed Stihl chain saw and began slicing into the immense pine log before him.

For nigh on 20 minutes, the "extreme speed art" carver used increasingly shorter chain saws to peel away more than half of the huge log to free the image of an owl hiding inside.

At times, the air was thick with sawdust and the smell of turpentine, some of the piney particles reaching beyond a protective fence to land on the laps of onlookers during the show, presented several times a day at the State Fair of Virginia near Doswell.

"It's amazing that he can see the shape he wants to make in that big piece of pine," said Joe Kozlowski, brushing sawdust from his jeans as he walked closer to inspect the 3-foot barn owl, complete with etched feathers.

The Bracey resident joined a somewhat light crowd at the fair on Monday to do what folks have been doing at Virginia's state fair for decades.

Nine-year-old Brayden Harris of Varina had no trouble defining what he wanted to accomplish at the fair, now operated by the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation in a partnership with Universal Fairs LLC of Cordova, Tenn.

"I want to do the ride with cars that go round and round and round until you get a headache," said the youngster from behind the wheel of a tractor at a display booth.

He added "Don't forget the food--a candy apple, a turkey leg, cotton candy, sweet tea, ice cream and pizza."

All hopefully consumed well apart from that ride that goes round and round.

His mother, Shirlene Harris, noted that her son and others from Richmond Christian School were also using the day at the Fair to help complete a fourth-grade unit on Virginia.

"But then come fun and the rides," she said.

On Monday, I made the rounds of this new incarnation of the State Fair in Caroline County.

Things looked perhaps a bit sparser than in other years, with open spots here and there on the midways and activity areas.

With the fair's existence up in the air for so long after bankruptcy, it's likely that some vendors or attractions went elsewhere.

But there are still plenty of shows, exhibits and attractions, and uniquely State Fair stuff like fried Oreos, prize cattle and huge pumpkins.

And there's plenty to occupy youngsters like the ones from Alexandria's Engleside Christian School I caught up with at a booth from our state's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

They had a blast getting a chance to hold a variety of snakes: corn, mole, king and rat.

"They're not slimy at all!" said one little lass, seemingly a bit disappointed that there wasn't some good gunk on the king snake she was handed.

Suzie Gilley, an education coordinator for DGIF, said the activity was designed to show fairgoers, especially young ones, that snakes aren't all dangerous.

"We've got 30-plus species of snakes in Virginia and only a few of those are poisonous," she said, noting that those that aren't venomous should be valued for their ability to control vermin and, in some cases, kill venomous snakes.

While the snakes in that booth didn't bite, something did in the Virginia State University booth where Brian Nerrie was holding forth.

When I walked in, the VSU aquaculture specialist was holding a mouse-sized prawn in his right hand, with one of the shrimp's long, slender claws clamped on his forearm to the point of drawing blood.

"It's not that bad," said Nerrie, who nevertheless relaxed a bit more when he plunked the grayish crustacean back into its oxygenated tank.

Nerrie said specialists at Virginia State have been working to help Virginia farmers--especially those transitioning from fading crops like tobacco--move to raising prawns in freshwater ponds.

He said they're a one-season crop, going in about May, fed "sinking catfish food" until October and then harvested with nets where the ponds are drained.

"At one two-acre pond, a farmer harvested 1,600 pounds of these prawns, selling them for $10 a pound," he said.

So what do these prawns taste like?

"Because they're raised in fresh water, they taste like whatever you cook them in," said Nerrie. "Put Old Bay in and they taste like shrimp. I cook them in butter and they taste like lobster--not always making it from the pan to the table."

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

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