According to cultural theorist Mikhael Bakhtin, a carnival allows the rules and norms of a culture to be suspended, temporarily. What’s ugly is beautiful, what’s down is up.
Bakhtin created the term carnivalesque to describe art that does just that. Stories that glorify and give dignity to the non-normal, or what Bakhtin called (in a non-critical way), the grotesque.
Those stories get rarer and rarer these days. But we do still have Halloween, Mardi Gras, and the summer fair, or as we call it here in Toronto. “The Ex.”
The Ex’s best expression of the carnivalesque is, in my mind, the food. People go to the Ex to eat junk food, and eat a lot of it. Stuffing your face, proudly, is the temporary normal.
Thus, we began our sojourn at Canada’s largest fair with mini-donuts. Tiny, cakey and cinnamon-sugar dusted, they prepared our palates for the grease-fest to come.
The Ex was once an agricultural fair. It began in 1879 and some classic Victorian buildings from that era still stand. It soon became a site of militaristic and nationalistic propaganda. Historical pageants whipped up fervour for war (the costly and polluting CNE airshow now takes on that role), and exhibits of newly invented automobiles, radios and televisions boasted a nation’s progress.
But the fun fair, or the midway, was where the real carnival was. Freak shows, wax works, and burlesque were once its mainstays.
As I munched on my second food item (chicken on a stick), I mused upon the traces of the freak show that remain. The inexplicably popular booth where you pay $10 to have someone guess your weight and age; the Super Dogs show where highly trained canines do rediculous things. And, of course, the food hall.
Food is now the main freak of the Exhibition. From foot long hot dogs to deep fried mac ‘n cheese, food maintains its staunch, starchy allegiance to the grotesque.
Which is where I foundered. Instead of pickle-on-a-stick, poutine with bacon, candied apple or hot waffle ice cream sandwich, I went all ethnic and had a delicious pork adobe skewer with rice noodles and egg roll. It was lovely but it filled me up and prevented me from eating anything more than a few licks of my buddy’s soft ice cream.
We watched food shows and mop demos, a bluegrass band, and crazy antics on ice. We strolled the midway as the sun was setting, and went home in a street car full of exhausted, jubilant kids and their near-comatose parents, as the neon lights of the ferris wheel filled the night sky.