The Smell of Summer; the Sound of Bluegrass

On my way home tonight, I couldn’t help but notice that the air reeked of summertime.  I don’t mean sunscreen, mowed grass, or even an impending thunderstorm.

All I could smell was fried food.  And it smelled fantastic.

The smell of fried food recalls to mind the nostalgic idea of the county fair (I’ve been to one or two of those, and not even my own county’s); or the seasonal amusement park (I’ve been to my fair share of those); or the summer festival; or whatever version of Americana you might have in your head.  Fries, funnel cakes, corn dogs, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, fried chicken…whatever comes to your mind of the “typical American summer.”  These all wafted through my mind on the tails of these scents as I drove north on 14th Street.

But what came to mind was that, of all of these – and all the other foods Americans love to batter and deep fry – I’ve only had a novelty fried treat once.  By that, I mean the junk food that doesn’t seem to need to be deep fried – things like Twinkies, Oreos, ice cream, butter – all the things we might rightfully be made fun of for frying.

I have eaten a deep-fried, Double Stuf Oreo exactly once.  I was down in Galax, Virginia – several hours southwest of Richmond, as close as I’ve ever been to the North Carolina border, at the eastern edge of the Virginian portion of Appalachia.  How did I get here?

Towards the end of my first year of teaching in southern China, a college buddy of mine sent me an instant message to ask me if I wanted to come on a road trip with him while I was home that summer.  He was going down to Galax, he said, way down in Virginia.  He had this friend who was trying to break a Guinness World Record, he said, and he was going down to help her.  He said it was the Guinness World Record for the largest mandolin ensemble, and he was taking his down to play in her ensemble.  Did I want to come watch?

Does the Pope wear a funny hat?

Obviously I wanted to go.  But being the impulsive child that I am – I didn’t just want to go – I had to participate.  So naturally – almost as soon as I landed back in Maryland, I went over to the House of Musical Traditions and asked them about the mandolins they had in stock.  I walked out with a Loar A-style mandolin, a handful of pics, a set of extra strings, and a hard case I could use to take it back to China (…which I did – that made for fun repacking when I left China – but that’s a story for another time).

My friend sent me the names of the four bluegrass tunes his friend had selected.  I downloaded a mandolin tuning and chord app onto my old iPad 2, and started tinkering.  I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to learn 4 whole songs in 2 and a half weeks, but I could at least learn a chord or two.

Our road trip day came.  I ambled over to meet him and his brother in Alexandria, and we went on our way.  My friend sat in the back with me for a portion of the drive, and patiently tried to teach me a melody.  We snacked on Combos.  We watched the Appalachian Mountains rise around us.  We stopped for an early truck-stop dinner somewhere around halfway (or maybe two-thirds of the way) down.  It was homey and delicious – I can’t even remember what I ate, but I remember that it was hearty.  We eventually arrived in Galax, and checked into the Rodeside Motel.  (As much as Google Chrome thinks I’m spelling that wrong right now…that was the actual name of the motel.)

We woke up earlyish the next day and meandered over to the fairgrounds.  I discovered, as we walked in, that this effort was a part of the 77th Annual Fiddler’s Convention.  We signed in and ambled up to find some seats, and my friend reminded me of an important Guinness rule: To earn the title of largest mandolin ensemble, all members of the ensemble must keep their hands on the mandolin at all times in order to be eligible. So even if we couldn’t keep up with the melody – just play the chords, or at least do a darn good job miming it.  I felt okay about the A, A minor, D, and G chords – which were basically all I needed, or so I thought.  I felt a sudden surge of stage fright until we really got going.  Somewhere in the second or third tune, I really thought I had it – I was rocking that D chord – when my friend leaned slightly to his left (without taking his hands off of his own mandolin) and loudly whispered, “A!”  I subtly changed chords – luckily we were in the back, and I was being eloquently drowned out by much more accomplished mandoliners – and we all made it through the last tune.  There were 389 of us – six more than the previous record in Germany.  We were confirmed sometime later – but we all knew it.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the fairgrounds, finding various noshes, watching other performances, exploring downtown Galax, and eating delicious barbecue.

And at some stage in all this – we read a few chalkboard signs advertising a plethora of deep-fried whatever-you-can-think-of.  I said to my friend – who grew up in Appalachia, farther north – that I, the city child, had never eaten a fried Oreo.  He laughed mightily – he never had either (nor had his brother).  We basically had no choice – we ordered one and shared it among the three of us.

It was not as horrible as I thought it could be – the batter was light and fluffy, and the Oreo was surprisingly, delightfully gooey.  We were at a summer fair, watching the sun go down, munching on Americana.  It was summer, hot and sticky, deep-fried, on a stick.

And when I went back to China, shortly after the Galax adventure, we were introducing ourselves to the new teachers in our department with the typical “what do you teach, and tell us something interesting about yourself” icebreaker.  Astonishingly – I drew a blank, until my friend sitting next to me – the token rockstar teacher, the one in the band, the one I’d asked for tips before I’d bought the mandolin – coughed out, “Ahem.  Guinness world record holder.”

Well, until it got broken again a few years later.  But maybe that’s just our excuse to head on down to the next Annual Fiddler’s Convention and try something else deep fried.  Maybe I’ll try that fried Twinkie.  Or who knows – maybe I’ll just stick with the fried chicken at Gus & Gus, even if it might lack the sound of bluegrass, or that county-fair-feeling – but at least it’s only steps away from Funland in one direction, and a (fried) funnel cake stand in the other.  Summer is all around these days.

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