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Former Philadelphia Mayor John Street is a farm show junkie.
Not really a huge surprise: The man who presided over the nation’s fifth largest city from 2000 to 2008 after 19 years in City Council actually grew up on a farm. In retirement, Street appears to have gone back to his roots — he can now boast attendance at state fairs or farm shows in 35 different states.
It’s not the animals that are the main draw, although Mayor Street does have an affinity for them, especially the cows his father used to raise. It’s not the batter-dipped fried veggies or the blooming onion with ranch dressing, both major food court faves. It’s the people.
“At state fairs, you really see a cross section of the people of each state,” he explained. “You don’t get that at other kinds of big events, like the Indy 500 or NFL Draft.”
That’s exactly the point he used to convince his son, newly-sworn-in State Senator Sharif Street, to visit the 101st Pennsylvania Farm Show with him. It was the elder Street’s second time at the giant Harrisburg fair this week alone, but the younger Street had never before attended.
Unlike his dad, Sharif Street grew up in the heart of the city. In North Philly, to be exact, on Diamond Street.
But Sen. Street, 42, had already come to the the realization that in order to best represent his neighborhood — and the other, largely poor, predominantly dense urban areas in the senatorial district handed to him when PA Sen. Shirley Kitchen retired — it made a lot of sense to connect with people from other parts of this mostly rural state. And what better opportunity than the largest indoor agricultural exposition in the country?
“They had a message for rural people,” said Sen. Street as he weaved through the Farm Show’s apple- and alpaca-lined aisles, ostensibly referring to the Republican party. “It wasn’t a very good message, but we [Democrats] had no message for them. And a bad message is better than none.”
So what message does he want to convey?
“Poor people in rural areas are not very different from poor people in the inner city. So many of the issues they face are the same.”
Not much talk of specific policy came up on the Farm Show floor, but Senator Street definitely made good on his mission to meet lots of mid-state folks.
At the ultra-popular milkshake stand (around 16,000 are sold each day), he shook hands with all the workers, then struck up a conversation with PA Dairymen’s Association executive director David Smith. Between slurps of a vanilla shake that disappeared in less than five minutes, Sen. Street chatted with Smith about the benefits of supporting the PA dairy industry.
“People in Philly are all about buying local,” the senator said. “Shipping food is one of the biggest contributors to environmental pollution. We should be buying PA dairy whenever possible — it’s a win-win.”
Smith agreed, and pointed Sen. Street to the neighboring booth, also run by the Dairymen’s Association.
“Can’t go wrong with cheese!” the younger Street said, digging into a skewer of four giant fried mozzarella cubes. He bit into the crispy golden crust and came up with a mouthful of hot, oozing cheese.
“Want to try making one?” Smith asked. Sen. Street rolled up his sleeves — though his dad had changed into a PA Farm Show sweatshirt, the senator was still wearing a shirt and tie — and grabbed hold of a cheese stick. A woman wearing an Amish head covering walked the city boy through the steps: Dunk in batter, hold in boiling oil for 30 seconds, dunk in batter for a second coat, then drop into the oil until it floats.
The fried cheese would end up being Sen. Street’s favorite bite of the day, though several others were also well-liked.
The “chicken cheesesteak” was not one of them.
Made with salty pulled chicken beneath a glop of Whiz on what looked like a hot dog bun, the affront to Philly’s famous food was one of several sandwiches laid out for Street in the small VIP lounge at the center of the food court. Only thing — he couldn’t eat any of them, since he’s a vegetarian.
“My grandfather didn’t eat meat; I got the idea from him,” Sen. Street said. “He did it for religious reasons — Seventh Day Adventist. But I mostly do it for health reasons now.”
Mayor Street also doesn’t eat much meat (he does fish and fowl only), and he quickly remedied the food situation by directing his son to the fried veggies. Piping hot and coated in shatter-crisp batter, the Pennsylvania-grown broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini and onions were pronounced excellent by everyone who tried them.
Vegetables like these could soon be growing in the 3rd senatorial district, thanks to an aquaponics company called Intag.
The Harrisburg-based outfit has developed technology, tools, techniques and programs to grow produce in non-orthodox mediums like shipping containers. It’s currently working on transforming a North Philly building into an aquaponics facility — a building that happens to be catty-corner to Sen. Street’s district office.
So, post-fried-vegetables, Sen. Street made a detour to chat with Intag CEO Bob Welsh. Welsh detailed the benefits of Intag’s operations, including providing interactive education for area kids and job training for area adults. Then there’s the production of actual food.
“An 8-foot by 40-foot area can put out 1,100 lbs. of produce a month,” Welsh told the state senator.
After the aquaponics talk, it was time for a quick swing by the butter sculpture, and then a walk through the cow stands.
There wasn’t a milking station set-up — “We missed that, we could’ve done it on Friday” — but Philly’s former mayor and ex-farmhand was in his element. “I shot my all-time favorite photo here a couple of years ago,” he observed, flipping through his phone to find the image of a young girl in a blanket curled up next to a sleeping heifer.
“I didn’t realize they got so big,” the younger Sen. Street said, gazing in awe at a 1,300-lb animal. “You take care of these cows?” he asked a teen girl who was dutifully brushing its hair. She nodded and flashed a smile.
Then it was time to leave. But not before dessert.
Potato donuts are the best-selling items at the Farm Show — 36,000 of the treats are sold each day of the show — but Sen. Street had never tried one before. Roger Springer, GM of the Pennsylvania Co-operative Potato Growers association, made sure to remedy that.
“You gotta try a plain one, but the cinnamon sugar coated ones were my invention,” Springer said proudly. “They were supposed to be just for the 100th anniversary of the show, but they were so popular last year we decided to bring them back.”
“They’re amazing,” Sen. Street confirmed. He posed for a photo with the spud mascot, then assembled his crew and headed back to the urban jungle.