Falling on the third weekend after Labor Day each fall, the Common Ground Country Fair, put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), is one of Maine’s biggest events of the year. Home to hundreds of Maine-based vendors and businesses selling their crafts, farms selling their products, animal shows, educational speakers and more, the Common Ground Fair draws about 60,000 people to the fairground each year. And although there’s much to unpack each year when the fair comes and goes, one of the most interesting aspects of the event is the food for sale, since it is far from your typical fair food.
With classic options like hot dogs, french fries and fried dough available, it’s easy to forget the fair’s guidelines: all food must be locally sourced and organic — with no added sugar. Whether it be vegetables and cheeses for sale by a farmer, or full meals from a food truck, all vendors must go through a bit of a process before they’re approved to make an appearance at the fair. The process in place strictly ensures that the food follows these guidelines. So, the dessert you enjoyed at the fair this past weekend might not have been as guilt-inducing as you’d expect.
With the no-added-sugar guideline as a constraint, food vendors get creative with their sweetener options. Pie Cones is a vendor that was created specifically for the Common Ground Fair in 1992 and has been a staple of the fair ever since. This year they had two locations within the fair’s grounds. Jessica Small, daughter of Pie Cones owner and creator, Frances Walker, talked about the guidelines.
“We don’t use any sugar — it has to be organic and locally sourced with no sugar,” said Small. “We use honey and maple syrup and molasses to sweeten [the pies].”
The pie cones Small sells resemble flatter, wider ice cream cones, slightly smaller than a piece of pizza. The cones are then filled with a choice of pie fillings, such as blueberry or strawberry rhubarb, and can be layered with a creamier option, such as cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake or chocolate. They also sell Indian pudding sweetened without any added sugar.
MOFGA’s website calls the Pie Cone “one of the unique products to surface” from the fair, and although Walker opened a take-out Pie Cone stand in East Belfast years ago, she has since designated it as a Common Ground Fair-specific business, now preparing year-round for this single weekend in the fall.
Although Pie Cones is an impressive example of creativity in following MOFGA’s guidelines, there are many other notable food options at the fair that make it an organic foodie’s dream. From tofu fries and veggie burgers to butternut-squash pizza on a whole-wheat crust to classics like the bloomin onion and fried dough, the fair has something for everyone. The variety of food makes it easy to overlook the guidelines each vendor had to adhere to. There were lemonades and limeades sweetened with honey, as well as Maine-made sodas, chai tea sweetened with cinnamon and spices and more.
The rules on MOFGA’s food policy are spelled out in a fairly simple decision tree, which begins by asking vendors if the product, ingredient or item is organic and produced in Maine, and if not, is there a reasonable substitute that is? According to the food policy, ingredients or items from outside of Maine are acceptable, but only if the farmers who produce it share the mission of MOFGA and produce their items organically and sustainably; the application process even states that “Area Coordinators give preference to applicants who make their products with sustainably harvested natural resources from Maine.”
To get approved to sell food products at the fair, even if those products are just a small part of a vendor’s items for sale, the vendor must read and adhere to the food policy before applying, which very specifically spells out the farming and production practices that MOFGA accepts and defines as sustainable. The Fair office then approves of the application after “a thorough review of ingredients and ingredient sources,” according to MOFGA.org.
In addition to being locally sourced and organic, the Common Ground Fair also has significantly more vegan and vegetarian options than an average fair. There were options such as hummus and eggplant wraps, falafel, vegetarian pizzas, vegetarian curries, a mushroom station and more. A standout each year is Hiewa Tofu, a stand that sells unique twists on the staple vegetarian protein source, including maple cinnamon tofu sticks and tofu fries.
If you missed the fair this year, they’ll be back in 2020, three weeks after Labor Day, waiting with open arms to fill not only your (reusable) shopping bags but also your stomachs. So come hungry and leave knowing that the Common Ground Country Fair has only the highest of standards.