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Throwback Thursday: The Forgotten Foods of the St. Louis World’s Fair

We St. Louisans always call it the World’s Fair, as though there were no other. But not many of us really grasp just how big the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 actually was.

Not just in size, but in influence as well. Covering more than 2 square miles, including part of Forest Park and part of the Washington University Danforth Campus, it averaged a daily attendance of more than 87,000 people. The legendary Ferris wheel held more than 2,000 people at a time. The technology was impressive—those photographs of the lights at night were even more stunning in a world unaccustomed to that sort of post-dusk dazzle. Dishwashing machines and a mechanical potato peeler were actually being used, not just exhibited.

That brings us to food. Surely everyone in attendance stayed long enough to eat at least once…and probably more. The Board of Lady Managers petitioned to have a site for visitors who brought their own food to sit, have some ice water to drink, perhaps buy coffee or tea, and “avoid the promiscuous scattering of paper around the grounds.” At the other end of the financial scale was the immense Tyrolean Alps Restaurant (pictured left), where a double sirloin steak and béarnaise sauce was $3.75, more than $100 in today’s currency.

The variety of restaurants was surprising. At least 11 different national cuisines were available, including Indian, Filipino, and Dutch. A six-restaurant group offered barbecue, though it featured beef with no mention at all of ribs. Mrs. McMurphy’s Restaurant for Dyspeptics offered food according to the season with less meat in the summer and fresh vegetables “when available.” Plenty of snack-type stands, not leading to proper Victorian behavior, this eating while walking, but acceptable only in this type of setting. One restaurant, Volney’s, sold not only sit-down meals but meals in a bucket. Yes, carryout food. The fair’s documents also use the phrase “fast-food” to describe some eateries.

Many of the exhibitors also offered things to eat to promote their products. For example, the Brazilian and Puerto Rican buildings served coffee. Pillsbury proffered baked goods and gave away small bags of flour, and the Jack Daniel’s distillery distributed miniatures of their whiskey. Minnesota’s state pavilion served a free lunch of pickles, baked beans, bread, and butter for those who arrived early enough. The precursor of Baker’s Chocolate had a two-story exhibit showing how they made chocolate from cacao beans. The aroma, of course, drew crowds, who were given samples and the opportunity to buy both chocolate and the vanilla extract the company also made.

Our local pride may have gotten in the way of claims about “firsts.” Waffles were being wrapped around ice cream before Abe Doumar decided to try it at the fair. It wasn’t the first appearance of iced tea and peanut butter, either. But lots of things first came to public notice there, like Dr Pepper, made only in St. Louis and Waco, rice shot from cannons, and fruit icicles pushed out of bendable tin tubes. Ginseng was shown by a farmer from Houston, Missouri—it’s now regulated by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

At least 12 million people paid to get in, as many as 20 million may have visited. Nearly all of them came across at least one new or exotic food during their visits. And surely they all ate.

It’s no wonder we still talk about it. It was far bigger, and more delicious, than we remember.

Article originally posted by STLmag