Vic holding Gargantua, the giant beet.

Vic holding Gargantua, the giant beet. (Courtesy Lou Murray)

While Vic was participating in a bird census at Harriett M. Wieder Regional Park on Friday, I went to the opening of the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa with my friends Glee Gerde and Judi Smith. We had a blast.

Admission and parking were free for the first hour of opening day, so we didn't even have to use the free fair tickets that we received in exchange for entering various contests. I had entries in photography and produce. Judi entered quilts and sewing.

But first, we had to actually get to the fair. Traffic was backed up for two miles along Fairview Road and all the way back to the San Diego (405) Freeway. We had planned on arriving early, but as things worked out, we arrived minutes before the gates opened. At the stroke of noon, masses of people poured through the gates. The 2011 O.C. Fair was on.

I was most curious to see how my giant beet fared in the competition. I had brought it to the fair for judging the day before. I was sure that Gargantua couldn't be beat. It was the largest beet I've ever grown. Just getting it into the car to take to the fair was a feat in engineering. Vic and I maneuvered it several ways before we got it all into my Toyota Highlander. From root tip to stalk top, it was more than 8 feet long. Out of curiosity, I weighed it. Gargantua tipped the scale at 15 pounds.

At the fairgrounds Thursday, I carried Gargantua over my shoulder like a load of lumber. There were oohs and aahs as I passed bystanders. One of the volunteers asked jokingly what that ugly thing was. I must admit, Gargantua didn't look like any beet I've ever seen before. With it's gnarly root and a half dozen seed stalks stretching to infinity and beyond, it was a thing of awesome ugliness.

I thought for sure I had first prize nailed this year. So Glee, Judi and I hustled our bustles over to the produce competition first thing. But my wonderful giant beet was dwarfed by the beet next to it. Pat Wolff of Huntington Beach had entered a sugar beet whose root was twice as long as the root on Gargantua. Pat took first place, and I took second. There was no way a Chioggia beet could ever get as large as a sugar beet, which are enormous beets that are grown only for their sugar. And for future reference, everyone cuts the tops off their beets. The seed stalks don't count in the judging. Live and learn.

Next, I checked out my red onions. The Texas sweets that I'm growing at my plot in the community garden had made some respectable bulbs. I harvested the six best red onions, picked three that were similar in size and shape, cleaned off the outer skins and entered them. I was pretty sure that other gardeners would have better onions, and I was right. But my Texas sweets took a third-place ribbon.

Judi, Glee and I next scouted food booths for our lunch. We got some bratwurst and sauerkraut after laughing at the deep-fried butter, deep-fried Oreos and even batter-dipped, deep-fried bacon. I confess that I had the deep-fried butter at the fair last year, and it was fabulous. It's basically a churro with a bit of butter in the middle that melts into the churro when cooked.

We looked at the photography exhibit next. Neither Vic nor I got a ribbon with our entries, but it is thrill enough to see our photos hung at the fair. There were so many entries that I really didn't have time to look at them all. I did notice that my friend Wendy Hill won an honorable mention with her photo of an old motel. I was so excited for her that I called her from the exhibit to give her the good news. That turned out to be her first ribbon at the fair, so she was thrilled.

Our next agenda task was finding the quilts. Judi had entered three things in various quilt and sewing categories. We found one of her quilts hanging on the wall with a first-place tag on it. Each square had a different patchwork house on it. Her beautiful blue and green quilt won an honorable mention in mixed appliqué. And her gorgeous brown tote bag with sunflowers took second place in a sewing category.

All of this winning deserved a celebration, and to us, celebrating means eating. We had corn on the cob and lemonade. Glee found some fresh fruit. Then we headed over to the free ice museum. The line there seemed interminable, especially in the heat of the afternoon. By the time we got to the head of the line, I decided to eschew the hooded poncho that was offered before we stepped into the giant walk-in freezer. I should have taken it.

The ice sculptures were fabulous fantasy creations. Even the walls and barriers were made of ice, some clear, some opaque, some colored in a variety of hues. The operators only let in a few people at a time, so everyone has a quality experience in uncrowded surroundings. Many were taking photos, and I wish I had some, but I knew that the lens on my camera would fog up badly when I went back out into the hot afternoon. You will just have to see it yourself.

I suppose we should have quit and gone home at that point because we were all tired. But I really wanted some TastiChips. There is only one booth that has them, and they are the best potato chips I've ever had. Their booth was way back by the animal barns, so we hoofed it back through the crowds. The chips were worth the hike.

Glee cleverly bought tickets for us on the skyway so we could ride the aerial lift back to the gate where we had come in. We had spent four hours at the fair, which was all we were good for that day. There was so much more to see that I'll just have to enter more produce so I can get another free ticket.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.