Working the Rotary Wheel at the Appalachian Fair

Funnel cake!

My husband, Preston, and I are volunteering on a Wednesday night at the Rotary Wheel at the Appalachian Fair. We arrive early, and Mitch tells us we can go ahead and start wrapping plain and chili hot dogs for a late afternoon crowd that has not yet reached its peak of hunger.

We’re standing next to where Von is making funnel cakes, drizzling the liquid batter from a pitcher into the fryer. I conclude she is an expert at it because, although I get burned twice the first time I even stand nearby and try to help, she will end up hovering over that fryer for not only her four-hour shift but for an two extra hours, and she will never once get seared. That is more than luck. It’s sheer funnel cake talent.

Hot dog with chili and onions! 

Curly fries!

At the front of the Rotary Wheel building, where patrons can order at four wide windows, Rotary volunteers take patrons’ orders. The volunteers in the back are the cooks and preparers of kettle chips, hamburgers and cheeseburgers, curly fries, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, corn dogs, pizza slices, and other foods belonging to the American dream. To relay food orders to one another, we institute an intricate communication system: Shouting. 

And when the band starts up on the stage near us, so that guitars and crooning fill our building, we use an even more sophisticated technique: Shouting at the top of our lungs. 

It goes go something like this:

Them (servers up front): Funnel cake!

Us (short-order cooks in the back): It’s in the fryer!

(Von pours the batter in for one.) 

Them: Funnel cake!

(Von pours the batter in for two.) 

Us: Is that the first funnel cake or a second?!

Them: Funnel cake!

Us, to ourselves: Is that three funnel cakes or the same first funnel cake?

(Von pokes the funnel cakes as they sizzle in the oil.)

Von keeps a plate of the discards, of the little pieces that break off from the cakes and float in the fryer, but volunteers come by and snatch them up. They’re that good. Like I said, she’s got talent.

I hold out a plate, and she places the funnel cake, hot from the fryer, onto it. Preston and I are the ones who sift powdered sugar on top, though we start to debate about an hour into our shift how much sugar is required. I want to put more (because isn’t the whole point of funnel cake an excuse to eat tons of powdered sugar?), and he wants to put on a more reasonable amount. We never resolve the debate. I just add more sugar to his funnel cakes when he isn’t looking. 

A few hours into our shift, I snap some photos to try and capture the moment. There is something I love about the county fair: the bright lights of the ferris wheel, the ball caps and jean shorts, the cotton candy, the stuffed toys, and the scary rides. They remind me of my childhood, although the truth is I didn’t go to the county fair growing up. Maybe it’s that the roller coaster and candied apples and everything else are part of the American vernacular.

I especially like working with the Rotary Club members, who are part of the Tuesday noon Rotary Club in Johnson City. The money they raise at the fair will support the club’s big project: the Rotary Park Boundless Playground. Tonight, the club members have welcomed me into their midst even though I’m not the Rotarian: Preston is. I don’t know everyone’s name, but it doesn’t seem to matter. We’re a team with a shared mission: to serve and to make customers happy. Without any pep talks, we all step up and help out when it gets tough: Shelley makes nachos with cheese when we get overloaded, and Richard makes the batter for Von when the funnel cake orders amp up; Mitch sees that Preston and I are getting slowed down with the request for onions added to hot dogs and hamburgers, and he takes a bowl out front so people can serve themselves; I call out that I need more paper plates, and later, more paper boats for the hot dogs, and Rotarians in blue aprons appear holding my requests out to me without my having to ask twice.

If only the world worked as well as this. The hours roll by, and we feed the hungry fair-goers. A thunderstorm strikes the evening sky, and though the band stops playing, we keep on frying and grilling and baking.

Nachos chili cheese! Hot dog! 

Funnel cake!!!


(This article originally appeared in the Johnson City Press on 8/31/2014. )