Locally Sourced and Deeply Fried
For three days every September, the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity becomes one of the state’s finest food courts.
By Will Bleakley Photograph by Jennifer Smith-Mayo
Take a walk around the food court at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity and you’ll experience aromas that are equal parts American carnival and Asian street market. Fried dough mixes with the scent of spiced chai, as pie cones (pie fillings topped with whipped cream enveloped by a crust-like cone) sit just around the corner from vegetable tempura. “The fair has become a world food marketplace, but all sourced with Maine ingredients,” says David Gardner, who runs a falafel stand on the fairgrounds. For the crowd of sixty thousand that comes to Unity every September to celebrate healthy, sustainable agriculture but has a not-so-secret desire for greasy fair food, the food court is a locally sourced, organic, deep-fried heaven.
The organizers of the fair, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA,) make earning a spot as one of its forty-two food vendors difficult. But the process facilitates a level of creativity, dedication, and diversity not found at other Maine fairs. The rules are not as strict as they used to be (coffee, sugar, and chocolate were just a few of the forbidden ingredients until 2008 ), but it’s still a “rigorous application process,” says Jim Ahearne, the director of the fair. “To be a food vendor here, you don’t simply reserve your space and show up.” Applicants are selected in December and use the next ten months to explore every available option of sourcing ingredients from Maine, even if it means tweaking their recipe.
Standard festival foods such as French fries use Aroostook County potatoes and Maine sea salt, while smoothies find a way to be tasty with honey instead of sugar. “I’ve found limiting ingredients causes people to see what’s possible if you keep it local,” says Leigh Tillman, owner of Chai Wallahs of Maine. “Maybe you avoid chocolate because it’s not local, but find that it’s better with maple syrup.” Within these limits, dozens of vendors achieve a delicate balance. They continue a movement toward using local, organic ingredients in the foods we eat, without forgetting the abiding truth that no carnival would be complete without a greasy sausage sandwich.
A few vendors share what to expect at their stand at the upcoming fair:
"My tea is spiced chai combined with MOOMilk (Maine’s Own Organic Milk from Augusta) and Swans Honey (Albion). This year, I’ll be adding biscotti as well as a carrot salad made from my own garden.” — Leigh Tillman, Chai Wallahs of Maine
“I serve falafel and gyro on flatbread. I can’t get chickpeas in Maine, but my flour is from Aroostook, my lamb comes from Happy Town Farm (Orland), and I get most of my produce from Peacemeal Farm (Dixmont).” — David Gardner, Maine Falafel Company
“Some people say they come to the fair just to get our Roast Beef Sundae — it’s a scoop of mashed potatoes, with homemade cream and butter, our own organically raised roast beef with gravy, a scoop of sour cream, and a cherry on top.” — Bill Caldwell, Caldwell Farm
“I initially got rejected, but was accepted last year when I changed my proposal so that my organic corn mesa tacos were gluten free. I made a winter squash and black bean taco, both from scratch, using vegetables from Fishbowl Farm (Bowdoinham), chicken from Treble Ridge (Whitefield), and spices from Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants.” — Juliana Hoffmann, Tic Tac Taco
“I’ve been coming since 1982 to sell fried haddock, fried Maine shrimp, and fried scallops. I now go to many other fairs around the state, but for Common Ground, I use strictly organic grains and a Maine-grown, whole-wheat pastry flour from the County for my breading process. I come back ever year because there’s a special feeling at the Common Ground Fair. It is true whole food.” — Chuck Huus, Finest Fried Maine Seafood
If You Go: The Common Ground Country Fair runs September 21 – 23. Gates open at 9 a.m. $10 for adults, $8 for 65 and over, and children (12 and under) get in free. Two dollars off admission price if you bike to the event or take the train from Thorndike or Unity. Off Crosby Brook Rd., near Rte. 139/220 in Unity. 207-568-4142. mofga.org