Berks County has more than its fair share of festivals, especially those with agrarian roots. Between Reading, Kutztown and Oley, there are plenty of opportunities to showcase our farmers, gardeners, bakers and seamstresses.
But all of our festivals pale in comparison to the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
The eight-day event is held annually at the PA Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg, Dauphin County. For many Berks Countians, January is not complete without the annual pilgrimage to the state capital and one of Pennsylvania’s most beloved events.
There is no right or wrong time to visit the Farm Show, but if you visit on the weekend, arrive early. Parking fills up quickly, and it gets really cold, really quick when you stand outside waiting for the shuttle bus to take you to the Farm Show Complex.
As a lifelong Pennsylvanian, I am ashamed to admit that last year was my first ever trip to the Farm Show. Walking in for the first time, it can be overwhelming.
To the right is the food court and exposition hall. To the left are the arenas and a seemingly endless maze of animal stalls, exhibitors and family living contest entries. It’s an immense complex. If you took all of the buildings, the barns, and the grandstand area of the Reading Fair and put them all under one roof, you would be close.
For me, the most overwhelming part of the day is figuring out where to eat. There are far too many delicious options for one appetite (it took a pair of visits of two years to try everything I mention in this blog).
Here are a few recommendations from our visits:
If you’re craving something deep-fried, the mozzarella cubes are an excellent choice. Four supersized mozzarella sticks are battered, skewered and fried until light tan. The cheese oozes out with every bite. It’s creamy, it’s crunch, and it’s perfect with a little bit of marinara sauce.
Many items at the Farm Show are ones that you won’t find regularly in restaurants around here. One of those is the lamb stew, a savory bowl of lamb, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms and carrots. The stew eats like a chili, with a broth that thickens from the coarsely ground lamb. Every bite is meaty, but it doesn’t feel heavy because the lamb is so lean.
Rarely do I ever order a baked potato when I go out, but I decided to skip the fries in favor of something a little “healthier.” The photo does not do justice to how big this potato is (the bowl is about the size of my hand). Served with your choice of sour cream or butter, the potato is simple, but somehow better than any I have had in a long time.
Another option for a hearty lunch (or dinner) is the hot roast beef sandwich. Like most sandwiches at the Farm Show, the hot roast beef is served on a Martin’s potato roll. The thin-sliced beef is packed onto the roll with nothing else. I opted to drown mine in barbecue sauce (personally, I love how barbecue sauce and roast beef taste together).
Probably the Farm Show’s most well-known item is the milkshake. Last year, the Farm Show celebrated 50 years of serving milkshakes, going so far as to make it the basis of the 2014 butter sculpture.
Milkshakes come in three varieties: vanilla, chocolate, black and white—a mix of the two with one flavor layered atop the other. At times, it seems like everyone at the show has a milkshake in their hand. For as popular as the milkshakes are, and how much I heard about them ahead of time, I have to say they were really a let-down. The shakes are soft-serve, milk and dry mix thrown together in the machine to create something that’s basically a Wendy’s Frosty, only thin enough to use a straw.
While the food is a great reason to visit, there are plenty more reasons to stay.
The large arena hosts a variety of events throughout the week, starting with Saturday’s opening ceremonies, and including junior rodeo, horse demonstrations and competitions, and the Circuit Finals rodeo to close out the week.
Inside the Main Hall, you can taste samples from dozens of Pennsylvania food vendors and view live cooking demonstrations on the PA Preferred stage. Each year on opening day, the stage is the site of an Iron Chef-style cooking competition that pits three of the state’s top chefs against each other.
The hall also houses exhibits from Pennsylvania government departments, as well as businesses. It is also where you will find the family living competitions, including the results of baking contests, sewing competitions, and some of the largest vegetables to come out of Pennsylvania soil.
With all of the daily events, it is easy to make a day of it. And if you have the time, it is well-worth the drive.
This year’s Farm Show runs through tomorrow (Saturday). For those who can’t make the trip this year, be sure to clear your calendars for 2016 for the 100th edition of the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Admission to the Farm Show is free. The only cost is the $10 parking fee.