LANCASTER — For long-time fairgoers, a handful of items are synonymous with the Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival: the Kiwanis Junior Livestock Auction, the Rural Olympics, pastrami sandwiches from the BKB (Beth Knesset Bamidbar) booth and Emblem Club tacos.
This year’s edition of the fair, which begins on Aug. 16, will be missing one of those iconic items — the Emblem Club tacos.
Citing a lack of the volunteer labor required to pull off the annual feat, the organization is taking the year off to regroup, with plans in the works to hopefully return with its tasty fare next year.
With an aging membership and increasing difficulties in finding the help to staff the booth, “We just decided that it is impossible to do it this year,” taco booth co-chair Sheila Mundell said. “We have not written it off for the future. We’re looking at this as a time to take a deep breath and regroup.”
Manning the booth over the 10 days of fair is a major undertaking, with about 30 people working per day, Mundell said. This includes not only those assembling and serving tacos in the booth, but also the “spice girls” who put together the secret spice blend to season the meat and the “slice and dice” team that prepares the toppings.
Taco booth co-chair Cynthia Brehm said the decision was the result of much thought, sleepless nights and some tears.
“This was a very difficult decision. This was not something taken lightly,” Mundell said. “The community at large has supported us so wonderfully over the years. It was hard.”
The Emblem Club is in talks with another group for a joint community venture for the future to return to selling their famous tacos next year.
“I think what we’re talking about doing is going to be wonderful,” she said, emphasizing this year as a hiatus, not an end to the fair icon.
The Emblem Club has been serving its famous tacos at the Antelope Valley Fair since 1948, when the club members would prepare the food at home and sell the tacos from a card table.
“They spent a long time perfecting the recipe,” still in use today, Mundell said. “Those long-ago ladies paved the way for what it is today.”
Along the way, the tacos became a beloved part of the annual event, one that draws former residents back to the fair strictly for the tacos.
“You would be hard-pressed to find somebody who’s been in this Valley for a long time that hasn’t had a (Emblem Club) taco,” Deputy Fair Manager Debbie Smith said.
The booth itself — the permanent structure at the former fairgrounds and the portable trailer at the current site — is itself something of a landmark, often with a lengthy line of patient taco-buyers.
“It’s a mainstay,” Antelope Valley Fair Association Director Howard Harris said, and a common meeting place for friends and families.
“You get to know a lot of people while waiting in line,” Antelope Valley Fair Association Director Angie Hughes said.
While the lines at the booth are typically lengthy, there are few complaints, and the assembly line inside is well-versed in speedily filling orders that can easily run to dozens of tacos.
Even other food vendors at the fair purchase tacos for themselves and their crews, Brehm said.
The fair booth is the nonprofit organization’s major annual fundraiser. Formed as the woman’s auxiliary to the then all-male Elks Lodge, the group supports a variety of charitable activities locally and through the organization’s state and national bodies. These include scholarships, and service dog training programs.
“Every bit of money that we earn there goes back out into the community,” Mundell said.
The organization was one of the few local nonprofits to spend the approximately $63,000 for a trailer to serve as the taco booth when the fair moved to the new fairgrounds in 2004.
“The first year was rough,” Mundell said of the transition, but the club settled in and the lines for the famous tacos continued.
The group sells on average 45,000 to 50,000 tacos each year, for which they thank the community “for their loyalty and support all these years. We couldn’t have done it without them,” Mundell said. “We’re totally grateful for all the support we’ve received over the years. We don’t take that lightly.”