I am unabashed in my love of the Ex. I have attended the Canadian National Exhibition every year of my life. Factor in the summers I made multiple visits, and it's safe to say I've been at least 50 times.
Telling people this typically elicits one of two reactions. The first, from those who have never been, is "Why?" To them, the CNE appears to be nothing more than a nausea-inducing collection of fried-food monstrosities, questionable rides and (at best) B-list bands. I get it.
What annoys me more is the complaint from past visitors: "Why bother? The Ex isn't what it used to be."
Listen, I can't argue with that. In my childhood, the Food Building was a dreamland full of free samples and cheap chocolate bars. Each evening ended with a spectacular fireworks show. No one had been shot at (what was then) the Horticulture Building.
But things change. The CNE is celebrating its 138th year. Of course it isn't the same. And while I mourn old favourites and abhor some new additions, I know where to find the little moments of joy that keep me going back. The secret is to get away from the midway and the greasy food du jour – to venture into the corners where the true "small-town fair" spirit reigns and embrace it wholeheartedly. Here is my highly subjective guide.
As seen on TV
Enter through the Princes' Gate and the first building you hit is the Enercare Centre, divided into different shopping sections. Blow through the Warehouse Outlets and the International Pavilion and make a beeline for the At Home Pavilion/Shoppers Market. It's like walking into an infomercial. Try out a shiatsu massage and release the tension in your neck. Get a piece of jewellery cleaned for free. Watch a grown man pitch you a vegetable peeler with an amount of enthusiasm typically demonstrated by cult leaders. Don't be ashamed if you end up forking over your credit card. My friends make fun of my CNE purchases – the aforementioned peeler, a Vitamix, a Sweepa broom, a tile cutter and more – but I use them all the time.Cheap thrills
At some point, you should pay $5 to take the Sky Ride and enjoy a bird's-eye view of the fair grounds. But I typically save that for the end of the night, when eight hours of walking is taking its toll. Earlier in the day, I'll brave the crowds thronging the midway games, because losing $10 in an attempt to win a stuffed animal worth about 50 cents is all part of the fun. My suggestion: Whac-a-mole. Beating plastic rodents over the head delivers a surprising adrenalin rush. (Tip: Keep your eyes on the centre and use your peripheral vision to take in all the holes.) If you're up for a bit of gambling, please skip the casino (a depressing, soulless place) and put a couple bucks on the Crown and Anchor wheel or the spinning horse-race game. Also entertaining: Watching people's ego get crushed at the Guess Your Age or Weight game. (Hey, they put themselves out there.)
I straight-up do not care about the year's "hottest" food. (Remember how the cronut burger worked out?) However, if you go to the Food Building and order Subway or Pizza Nova or any other food you can get anywhere at any time, you're doing it wrong. My CNE must-eats are classics: American Original Seafood Fish and Chips (a substitute for the departed H. Salt Fish and Chips), Tiny Tom Donuts (duh) and a hot ice-cream waffle sandwich (a favourite for about 75 years) washed down with a bottle of Clearly Canadian. Oh yes, that fruit-flavoured sparkling water you guzzled in the early nineties lives on at the Ex.
Talk to the animals
You must see the President's Choice SuperDogs at least once. One year, a woman danced with a large canine and it was … um … surprisingly intimate. Arrive early because the seats fill up fast. Opposite to the joyful pups is the cat show (Aug. 27 and 28), full of sullen felines who must endure being stretched and prodded in front of a crowd. It's perfect for cat lovers and haters alike. And, finally, head to the Farm to view a variety of baby animals (seeing those cute little piglets will put you off bacon for at least a couple of days), marvel at the alpacas' ridiculous haircuts (think early Justin Bieber) and be grossed out to learn all the household products made with cow byproducts (toothpaste?!).
The CNE's roots date back to a travelling agricultural fair and a few quirky and quaint traditions keep this spirit alive. The Garden Show area of the Enercare Centre is home to Canada's largest flower and vegetable growing competition. Alongside giant tubers and stunning orchids, you'll find the "design" categories, wherein creative green-thumb types interpret themes such as "a meal for the senses" and "motivated to move" in a floral manner. Some are rather, shall we say, abstract. At the Farm, I never miss the butter sculptures – at once delicious and artistic. Previous spreadable works have included Rob Ford and the Yonge Street dead raccoon. (This year's theme has yet to be announced.) Before you leave the building, seek out the photos of fresh-faced teens from across the province who are hoping to be crowned an Ambassador of the Fairs, a delightful reminder that city life isn't everything.
Booth 614 in the Arts, Crafts and Hobbies building is one of my favourite spots on the CNE grounds. Technically it's the booth of Browser's Den of Magic, where Canada's oldest magic shop peddles basic trick sets – the sort your dad might have performed at your sixth birthday party. But I prefer to think of it as a portal into a cynicism-free zone, for I have seen hipsters, geeks, teens, yuppies, you name it, gasp in wonder at the free magic show put on by Bernie Baillargeon. One trick, involving a personalized coin and a box covered in elastics, continues to puzzle me. A friend once bought the set because she just had to know how it was done, but what's the fun in that?
The Canadian National Exhibition runs until Sept. 5. For tickets and more information visit theex.com.