TREAT ME IN ST. LOUIS

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        ST. LOUIS, 1904 — Forget the statue of Teddy Roosevelt — made of butter.  Let the great Ferris wheel spin.  A “Creation” ride from the book of Genesis? Another flotilla of rowboats in another lagoon?  Ignore all this man-made wonder, America.  Meet me in St. Louis, and let’s pig out.

        During one hot summer, at one singular fair, American food came of age.  Sausages in buns and slabs of ground beef on bread!  Tea over ice!  Ice cream in a rolled-up waffle!  A jiggly, fruity gelatin.  Peanuts ground to a salty paste. . .  The list goes on. 

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        American food can be divided into two periods — before and after The Fair.   The fair in question was the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a celebration of the land deal that, in 1803, doubled the size of America.  On the north side of St. Louis, a plaster city was planned, erected, and on April 30, 1904, finally opened.  Standing before a throng of men in straw boaters, women in bustles and big hats, the governor of Missouri declared, “Open ye gates, swing wide, ye portals!”  When gates slowly swung, some 200,000 people poured through and began chowing down.

        Like previous world’s fairs, the main attraction was the future.  The 19 million who came to the fair that summer got their first look at automobiles, radio, motion pictures, X-rays, and incubators.  But fair goers also saw the future of American food, and it was fast and fun.  

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        After a century of gruel and grits, the American diet was beginning to liven up.  In isolated pockets of the country, entrepreneurs were trying out new foods for people with new salaries to spend.   Sausages in buns hit the street in 1880.  Ground beef on bread came slightly later.  Tea on ice — 1860s.  Sugar spun into “fairy floss” — 1901.  A triple-decker sandwich served at an exclusive “club” — 1890.

        But only in St. Louis did each get its popular name — hot dogs, hamburgers, iced tea, cotton candy.  Club sandwich.  

        And then there were the trademarked foods.  Gilded Age prosperity let upper class families buy meals instead of making them from scratch.  The St. Louis Fair saw the American debut of Jell-O, puffed rice, Pillsbury flour, and Borden’s dairy products.  In one booth, George French was pumping out his mustard.  Strolling down the mile-long food pike, one could sample Heinz ketchup, Log Cabin syrup, and Dr. Pepper.  Because local water was risky, bottled water was popular, with Poland Springs winning a gold medal.  And to top it off, Jack Daniel’s served free samples of whiskey.

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        As at all fairs, produce had its pavilions. The California pavilion featured huge pyramids of oranges, apples, lemons, and the first kumquats seen east of the Rockies. Florida’s display featured a strange, softball-sized fruit, never sampled so far north.  Called the pomelo, it sold for five bucks a box, and would soon be known as grapefruit.  Elsewhere an apple vendor coined a phrase that began, “An apple a day. . .”  It caught on.

        For more serious diners, the fair rivaled today’s urban cosmo-cuisine.  Fruit compotes served before a painted backdrop of the Alps.  Green turtle soup.  Vegetarian fare for diners suffering from “dyspepsia.”  Sea bass.  Asparagus hollandaise.  At the fair, one historian noted, “one could breakfast in France, take a mid-morning snack in the Philippines, lunch in Italy, and dine in Japan.”

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        And then, as quickly as it had burst upon the scene, the fair closed.  But unlike previous world’s fairs, this one left a legacy more prominent than postcards. Having sampled a new cuisine in St. Louis, Americans went home hungry.  Google’s remarkable N-gram viewer, which traces the frequency of any term as used in billions of digitized Google books, shows a dramatic rise, starting in 1905, of the following: Hot dog.  Hamburger.  Club sandwich.  Jell-O. Grapefruit.  Peanut Butter. . .

        Many myths have been spun about the St. Louis fair.  How an ice cream vendor ran out of cups, turned to a waffle maker and — Voila! — the ice cream cone!  How a tea maker, on a hot day, thought “why not?” and poured his tea over ice.  Similar creation myths link the fair to other popular fare.  All have been debunked. 

        “The real legacy of the fair,” food historian Robert Moss wrote, “is that, for a few brief months in a single place, it captured an entire culture of eating that was being remade for the modern world.”

America, let’s eat. This one’s on me. No no, I insist.

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History, FoodBruce WatsonComment