The Alabama Ren Faire is twenty-five years old this year, making it one of the South's longest-running faire's. We've gone for eight of the past ten years, barring one year's illness and last year's unpleasantness. But this year's faire was not the faire of old.
Any street party takes a lot of grunt work. I've seen town celebrations fall apart at the last minute because nobody wanted to get their hands dirty cleaning and prepping the streets, so having people to do the grunt work is important. When the Alabama Ren Faire first started, the grunt work was provided by the Society for Creative Anachronism, who in return got a tasteful display booth in the middle of the Faire. While they did the labor, the Faire increased in patrons and booths every year. The city park where the Faire is held was a kaleidescope of people in all kinds of costumes: medieval, celtic, fairy, bellydancer, goth, vampire, dragon, steampunk, regular punk. Everyone's freak flag flew proudly, and entering the Faire always gave me a profound feeling of relief and homecoming.
Something happened to make the SCA leave. About four or five years ago the Faire found a new partner to provide a source of labor: a Conservative Evangelical Christian Church located across from the park. They brought their own ideas about things with them. Not all those ideas were bad -- the children's treasure hunt through the hay bale for little trinkets was a smash hit with its age group. But the children's puppet show they put on the first year where cute little puppets told the kids they were going straight to hell if they didn't do exactly what the church told their parents to tell them to do was a bust. And they weren't satisfied with a tasteful booth in a middle of the fair. They got a soapbox on the food vendor's aisle where they could harangue people in shifts on the evils of sin while the patrons tried to eat their lunch. The first year they dressed up in monk's robes and I held out hope that we'd get sermonized on period-appropriate sins, but it turned out to be vilifying TV and gay marriage. This year they didn't bother to dress out.
Neither did many other people. Patronage and vendors were both down by two-thirds over their peak, hardly anyone showed up in medieval costume, and no one showed up in any other kind of costume. The people who came spent less time, and subsequently less money, while they were there. Previously we'd shown up in the morning, walked around a bit, ate lunch, and walked around some more. This time we left at lunchtime.
We asked the locals for a good place to eat and ended up at Evergreens' Chinese Buffet, which had a full parking lot at 1:30 in the afternoon, always a good sign. The paying customers included local Chinese, another good sign. The buffet was a bit small, but the food was delicious. One item I found that we'd never seen before was labelled "California Chicken". It turned out to be a fried meatball of ground chicken, flour and spices. I joked to my husband that the Californians had reinvented the hush puppy. Has anyone ever heard of anything like that before? I couldn't find a recipe online.