The 'Best Little Fair in the Land'

Saturday, September 24, 2005

ALTENBURG, Mo. -- Attending the East Perry County Fair means taking along an appetite. And leaving the calorie counters and diet books at home.

Don't like red meat? There is fish, but it's breaded and deep-fried. And delicious.

For those wanting a more authentic taste in this 166-year-old community founded by Germans from Saxony, there's bratwurst. With sauerkraut, of course. And authentic potato salad.

And don't forget the grilled cheese. A beautiful slice of pizza cheese on white bread, buttered and grilled golden.

In the fish house, Greg Krauss explains how they prepare the jack salmon: roll it in corn meal, add red and black pepper, then lay a few dozen on a tray that sits just under the surface of the oil in the fryer.

The fish, which are cooked whole, open easily when done, allowing the spine and other bones to be removed easily.

With three fryers going constantly, the volunteers can just about keep up with the demand from people who step up on all four sides of the stand, Krauss says. "We sell more now than we did 15 years ago and there are a lot more food stands now," he says. "Last year, we sold 3,600 pounds of fish."

Across the way, a stand that began 18 years ago as a cararmel apple stand operated by Steffens Orchards delivers fat bratwurst smothered in sour kraut and, if customers like, grilled onions.

Rodney Barber works the grill, cooking up to 88 bratwurst at a time. His wife Brenda keeps the kraut hot and the onions grilling, while Donna Lueder loads the sausages for delivery to the waiting customers. Donna's husband Doyle prepares the slices apples and batters candy bars for deep frying.

They expect to sell nearly 3,000 bratwurst, made by Stonie's Sausage Shop in Perryville, during the two-day fair. "We call this hell week," jokes Rodney Barber as he sips a beer and rolls the bratwurst until they turn a deep inviting brown.

The bratwurst stand is in a small trailer pulled onto the well-shaded campground. They've turned down requests to bring their trailer to other area fairs. "It is a unique fair. We are all proud to be part of it," Doyle Lueder says.

And the "Best Little Fair in the Land," as organizers proclaim it, runs true to the agricultural roots of the communities it serves. Area farmers display their best livestock and young people show animals and display horsemanship.

Friday afternoon's activities include a children's pedal tractor pulling contest. And today, one of the most popular events, the Jumping Mules Competition, will take place in the arena.

The contest, legend has it, grew out of riding mules to hunt raccoons. Instead of riding around a fence, people would dismount, then coax the animal to jump it.

However it began, it's popular, says Earl Lorenz, a member of the fair board, who proudly displays a picture of a hillside covered with specators.

This year's fair has expanded parking with the purchase of additional land. By mid-afternoon Friday, the need for as much parking was possible as the fair throngs with people despite the 90-plus degree heat.

Schools in Perry County take a day off for the fair, as do area businesses, Lorenz notes. "You have a lot of people who use it as a homecoming," he says.

Now to that grilled cheese, advertised as "world famous." Cooked by volunteers from the Immanuel Lutheran Church, the process runs quickly and efficiently. For the Friday afternoon shift, Ron Palisch puts the sandwich together, while his wife Char Palisch brushes on the butter.

Then its onto the grill, where Roxanna Weber keeps them moving toward Cheri Braeuner, who turns them and takes them off when they're ready. Then Imogene Unger wraps them in wax paper, then its out the window to waiting customers.

"We have about 420 pounds of cheese, which makes about 6,000 sandwiches," says Unger "And we usually run out."

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