Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The House Of Onions

The rides themselves look more like what you’d expect at a larger county fair—“ Robert Nelson, Omaha World-Herald, September 4, 2009.

The Nebraska State Fair is moving to Grand Island, and will no longer be a summer-time adventure in Lincoln, the state capitol of Nebraska.

The Carnival people (once called “Carnies”), the folks who take the tickets, run the rides and do all the heavy lifting might disagree with Nelson’s characterization, but they would know best.

I wonder, do they care if their carnival is “State Fair" quality? Is there even a measurement for such a thing?

Intuitively, and by riding the rides, carnival goers experience quality. Anyone who's seen the small carnivals found in tiny Midwestern towns know that they can be pretty dingy.

At a good carnival you always feel the pride of a well-run show. When I was a kid, Sioux City’s Morningside Days were always clean, if not threadbare. But still, it was the show downtown, the city’s summer River Cade festival that had the real presence, and especially as it grew up—a Cadillac-like show for the entire city.

But honestly, do the workers of carnivals think about things like this? Wherever they work, they put things up, they take things down. They pack things up, they pack things down.

In the old days all that moving seemed exotic somehow, and perhaps it still is. But it's transient, isn’t it? The work-hard, play-hard drifters (are they drifters)?

Maybe I am getting old, but it was a lifestyle once. In Morningside, the carnival brought its own “field kitchen,” a traveling diner that appeared under a tree and doubled as a food stand and restaurant for the carnival goers in Morningside. It was a basic grill, enclosed by glass and covered with an awning. It had Woolworth-like counters and stools—an adventure. A place of mystery.

I ate there once. But none of my friends joined me. It was a “Carney Place.” You couldn’t buy a Pizza On-A-Stick there, or fried ice cream—or any of the food that creates adventure at carnivals these days. And it didn’t matter if it was Iowa, Illinois or Texas (places where the rides look like they should, according to Henry Brandt, a former fair manager in Nebraska).

Simply put, Carnies lived the life.

I have not been to a carnival (at a State Fair or elsewhere), for many years. But I know when I ate at the Morningside McDonald’s during the Morningside Days a few years ago, the Carnies ate there during the show.

When I was young, the people who worked the carnival ate in the field kitchen, and everyday on the flatiron grill (and maybe even in a frying pan occasionally), there were piles of fresh grilled onions.

I would walk past this place year after year(as I remember) and wonder at the strange food. It must have had something to do with the Carnie lifestyle.

When I did finally get the courage to eat there, I remember a so-so hamburger, and disappointment (for I did not ask about the onions steaming on the grill).

I work at a vitamin store now, and I know onions are an important food. They even have medicinal properties. Did the carnival manager and cooks know this, or was it just a given?

Recent studies have actually shown a decrease in cancer, most notably stomach cancer, by eating onions (lots of onions), and garlic. And that is not all. According to Winston Craig, a registered dietitian who writes on the site Vegetarianism & Vegetarian Nutrition, onions are a rich source of fructo-oligosaccharides. Something called oligomers, according to Craig, that stimulate the growth of healthy bifidobacteria and suppress the growth of potentially harmful bacteria in the colon.

Also, onions and other allium vegetables (garlic, for example), are rich in something called thiosulfinates, and can exhibit antimicrobial properties (they can help prevent sickness). In fact, onions are highly effective against bacteria, including Bacillus subtilis, Salmonella and E. coli. It is not as potent as garlic, Craig said (the sulfur compounds in onion are only about one-quarter the level found in garlic), but without question onions are much yummier on the grill.

That field kitchen (a place with onions steaming on a flatiron grill) was as much a part of the experience as the rides themselves. In fact, more so. There was real life and living at that carnival. Experiencing it was a rite of passage.

The carnival in Morningside still has that air about it. A few years ago, a woman who introduced me to herbs marveled at how her son saw the carnival with such zeal. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but she had lived in New York City, and could not believe how important the experience had become to her son.

When I was his age, it seemed more exotic—even the food—and I will never forget that kitchen. There is nothing like that there now, but did the carnival people once stock up on onions in their diet for prevention? Did onions help fight the germs of little children and their parents? Now gone to McDonald’s too?

The carnival people eat at McDonald's now. And even if you get mad about the crummy ride, you can still smile and say hello. They are good people. But as a child, I always remembered them as having endless energy. Carnival workers were super robust, and I envied them.

It has been a while, but I well remember two or three carnival workers coming into buy dinner one night at McDonald's. They were talking and one worker did not feel well. He was hoping the fast food would help settle his stomach. They had to pack up. It was time to move on.

The field kitchen is long gone, and none of us is the richer for it. We have lost the mystery, knowledge and traditions that guided those workers—and the sons and daughters of generations of carnival workers who ate the steaming grilled onions so long ago. I hope they come back some day.

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to the folks at Artist|rising for the neat Ferris Wheel, and also to the folks at Bing.We trust it is okay to use these images. Finding a photo of a field kitchen at a carnival grilling onions was impossible.