State Fair Food Fare: Strange Eats & Award-Winning Recipes

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena talks about how important food has been in the history of state fairs—both the food and recipe competitions, as well as some unusual treats offered for your consumption at the fair.

Do your plans this summer include a trip to your state’s fair? State fairs have been around since 1841 and are a showcase for all types of goods, though their origins focused on agriculture.* State agriculture boards utilized early state fairs as a means to assist farmers in learning how to improve their crops and livestock, as well as highlighting products used in farming.

Competitions provided cash prizes as well as bragging rights for participating farmers and their families.** Today, state fairs offer all kinds of competitions and prizes for the best in everything from agriculture and livestock to arts and crafts. The state fair represents the “best of the best,” with those who have won ribbons and awards at a county fair competing at the state level.

And of course, there are the food booths at state fairs, making these events veritable smorgasbords—which offer some surprising cuisine. Chocolate-covered bacon, anyone?

photo of a booth offering chocolate-covered bacon at the California State Fair

Photo: booth offering chocolate-covered bacon at the California State Fair. Credit: Kim von Aspern-Parker.

1849 New York State Fair at Syracuse

State Fair at Syracuse, Trenton State Gazette newspaper article 12 September 1849

Trenton State Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey), 12 September 1849, page 2

As anyone who’s been to a state fair can attest, food is integral to the experience. Often the food we eat at the fair is out of the ordinary and reserved for just such an outing (think deep fried Twinkies, chocolate-covered bacon and funnel cakes). The fair food often borders between what you want to eat and what you want to eat just this once.

photo of a booth offering deep fried Twinkies, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Snickers at the California State Fair

Photo: booth offering deep fried Twinkies, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Snickers at the California State Fair. Credit: Kim von Aspern-Parker.

1918 Idaho State Fair Cancelled Due to War

The food served at the fair has changed over time to reflect the region and current tastes as well as world events. Consider this newspaper article referring to a barbeque for the Idaho State Fair in 1918, during World War I. The event, referred to as the “eatfest,” was cancelled in an effort to conserve food because the previous barbecue attendees had consumed “five beeves,” “600 huge Pullman loaves of bread” and “200 pounds of sugar.” Readers are assured that the eatfest would return:

when the war is over and the United States forces march into Berlin they will put on a barbecue that will make the world sit up and take notice…

State Fair Barbecue Cancelled for Wartime, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 20 September 1918

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 20 September 1918, page 5

photo of a booth offering corn dogs and cotton candy at the California State Fair

Photo: booth offering corn dogs and cotton candy at the California State Fair. Credit: Kim von Aspern-Parker.

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1860 Utah State Fair Awards

Throughout the history of state fairs, all kinds of awards have been given for food. While some awards are aimed toward crops and livestock, others are for prepared food items. In this 1860 award listing from the Deseret Agriculture and Manufacturing Society (the original name for the Utah State Fair), Utah Governor and Mormon President Brigham Young won in several categories including the Vegetables category for best 6 stalks of celery, best 4 heads of cauliflower, and best “peck of silver onions.” Interestingly enough, there is a Women’s Work category that does not include food.

listing of awards presented at the 1860 Utah State Fair, Deseret News newspaper article 17 October 1860

Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 17 October 1860, page 263

photo of various food booths at the California State Fair

Photo: various food booths at the California State Fair. Credit: Kim von Aspern-Parker.

1933 Texas State Fair Recipe Contest

State fairs evolved to provide women with the chance to submit their favorite recipes for prizes. In this photo montage from the 1933 Texas State Fair, some of the winners in the food categories are listed as well as their street addresses.

Prize Winners in State Fair Food Exhibit, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 13 October 1933

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 13 October 1933, section I, page 5

photo of first-place jams at the California State Fair

Photo: first-place jams at the California State Fair. Credit: Kim von Aspern-Parker.

Blue Ribbon Recipes from 1937 Illinois State Fair

The obvious question asked when someone wins a blue ribbon for their recipe is: what is their secret? In some cases, you can find state fair winning recipes printed in the newspaper. In this example from the “Homemakers Institute” column, encouraging women to get their children involved in cooking, two blue ribbon recipes from the Illinois State Fair are featured: Baking Powder Biscuits and Sugar Cookies.

article about recipe winners at the Illinois State Fair, Daily Illinois State Journal newspaper article 22 August 1937

Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), 22 August 1937, page 8

photo of the gold cheese award at the California State Fair

Photo: gold cheese award at the California State Fair. Credit: Kim von Aspern-Parker.

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Fruit Cake Prize Winner

In this article about Mrs. Florence Dickinson, a multiple blue ribbon-winning cook, she provides her fruit cake recipe and remarks that “as long as people like to eat, women will like to cook.” She goes on to point out that the modern woman, a la 1935, has more time on her hands because of modern appliances and that allows them to not concentrate their entire day on cooking.

Mrs. Florence Dickinson Gives Recipe for Specialty (Fruit Cake), Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 5 November 1935

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 5 November 1935, page 7

Did anyone in your family win a prize for a recipe they submitted to the fair? Did they pass down their prize-winning recipe? If so, please share your family recipes with us as we’d all love to try a taste.

Provide us a newspaper clipping or recipe card and we’ll add it to our Old Fashioned Family Recipes Pinterest board.  You can email the blog editor with your clippings and cards at: apettinato@genealogybank.com

Follow Genealogy Bank’s board Old Fashioned Family Recipes on Pinterest.


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* Time Magazine. “A Brief History of State Fairs”: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1916488_1921788,00.html. Accessed 26 July 2014.
** Shrader, Valerie V.A. “Blue Ribbon Afghans from America’s State Fairs: 40 Prize-Winning Crocheted Designs.” New York: Lark Books, 2003, p. 7.

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Written by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide.

Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012).

Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

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