Some of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition fair foods that rocked the world are still with us today. We take them for granted, but they caused a sensation among fairgoers. When I travel, I like to find foods that have their own history. Usually, there’s a great story behind their popularity…and often, they’re an inexpensive way to get acquainted with a destination.
Chicago lands the contract
First, a little background. When the announcement was made of a World’s Fair to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christoper Columbus’ discovery of America, Chicago made a bid. Still recovering from the devastating fire of 1871, plucky Chicago managed to beat out New York, Boston, St. Louis, and Washington, DC for the right to host the Columbian Exposition. The story of how it almost didn’t happen is brilliantly told in Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.
But it did happen. The Chicago Columbian Exposition (also called the Chicago World’s Fair) opened on May 1, 1893. For six months, 27 million people–25% of the country–visited “The White City” and were dazzled by the white Beaux Arts buildings, lit with electricity. They paid 50 cents ($12.50 today) to ride the Chicago Wheel, invented by a certain George Washington Ferris.
New foods for the Fair
And they ate. Exciting “new” foods that we still love today. Let’s start with those from Chicago.
Before they even entered the Fair, visitors were given a box of Cracker Jack. Invented by Frederick William Rueckheim, a local confectioner, it was a tasty combination of popcorn, molasses, and peanuts. Rueckheim and his brother, Louis, had figured out how to keep the kernels from sticking together. (They wouldn’t start adding the famous prizes until 1912.)
Vienna Beef hot dogs were created by Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichl, immigrants from Hungary. There were sausages in Chicago, but none were pure beef and Kosher. The men chose the name Vienna, after a city known for great sausage. The sausages were a big hit at the Fair. However, the famous Chicago-style hot dog, with the “salad” on top, didn’t come along until the Depression.
Bertha Potter was one of the few women involved with the Chicago World’s Fair. Married to Potter Palmer, real estate tycoon and one of the original investors in the Fair, she was in charge of the Women’s Pavilion. She wanted to serve a treat that could be eaten out-of-hand. She asked the chef of the Palmer House to create something special for box lunches. The Brownie, as it was called in the Sears Roebuck catalog, was an immediate success. Want the original recipe? Here you go!
Where would we be without Wrigley Gum? At the time of the Fair, Doublemint gum was the only flavor made by William Wrigley, who started his company in 1891. But his Juicy Fruit gum was one of the favorite Chicago Columbian Exposition fair foods. Spearmint gum also made its debut.
Other foods introduced at the Fair
There are other Chicago Columbian Exposition fair foods introduced in 1893 that are still with us today:
- Aunt Jemima pancake mix, featuring Chicagoan Nancy Green (a slave born in 1814) portraying the character. She remained the model for Aunt Jemima until she died in a car crash.
- Quaker Oats and Cream of Wheat: Not as popular as other fair foods, but they got their launch in The White City.
- Shredded Wheat: Invented by Henry Perky, it’s still made the same way in Naperville, IL.
- De Cecco pasta: How exotic, to have an Italian food in 1893! It won an award at the Fair, too.
- Pabst beer: After winning a gold medal at the Fair, it became Pabst Blue Ribbon.
- Hershey chocolate: Milton Hershey was the first to make chocolate commercially, as well as affordable for everyone.
- Hamburgers! Named after Hamburg, Germany, ground beef patties were introduced to the world at the Fair.
Wherever you go, find the popular foods with a story
Before you set out on your next journey, take time to look up the foods that everyone loves. There’s sure to be a history behind the popularity: who invented it, how it got named, when it started. Of course, you must taste it, too. That’s what makes travel so special, finding the stories and then experiencing them for yourself.
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