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.

Related Food History & Family Recipe Articles:

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1964 World’s Fair: History, Photos & Memorabilia

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena uses old newspaper articles—and a friend’s photo collection—to reminisce about the 1964 World’s Fair.

Have you been to a World’s Fair? Did you or a family member go to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York? World’s Fairs, also known as World Expos, originated with the first fair held in 1851 in London. That fair, known as “The Great Exhibition,” was visited by an estimated 6 million people—and it was just the beginning of great events that showcased countries, industries, and cultures.

The 1964 World’s Fair was the largest one held in New York, which also hosted the World’s Fair in 1853 and 1939. The fair was the brainchild of businessmen who had fond memories of attending the 1939 fair and wanted that same experience for their families.*

photo of sailors looking at the exhibits at the 1964 World's Fair in New York

Photo: 1964-65 World’s Fair. Credit: Doug Coldwell, Wikimedia Commons.

Tourism

The World’s Fair was not only an event in and of itself, but out-of-state families may have used it as an opportunity to tour other nearby American sights. In this Louisiana newspaper advertisement, bus tours of nearby attractions like Washington D.C., Monticello, and Canada are advertised. For example, a friend of mine who went to the 1964 World’s Fair with his family also visited New York’s Central Park and the newly renovated John F. Kennedy International Airport. The World’s Fair would have been a good excuse for families to drive cross-country and visit several famous attractions to make it a memorable vacation.

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newspaper ad for bus tours at the 1964 World's Fair, Times-Picayune newspaper advertisement 24 May 1964

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 24 May 1964, page 39

Futurama

Some of this World’s Fair exhibits showed visitors what life would be like in the future. Glimpses they could have witnessed included the IBM building with its technology demonstrations, including a computer quickly translating Russian text to English. General Electric provided a nuclear fusion demonstration, and General Motors provided attendees with a vision of what the future would look like in their Futurama show. And not only could families take a glimpse into the future, they could also experience it firsthand with fair rides such as the monorail.** In some ways the fair was a combination of The Jetsons meets Disneyland (three exhibits marked the debut of what would be future Disneyland attractions).

a monorail ticket from the 1964 World’s Fair

Photo: monorail ticket from the 1964 World’s Fair. Credit: used with permission of Gary W. Clark.

World’s Fair TV Special

Not everyone could attend the World’s Fair—but even those who couldn’t travel to New York may have experienced it from the comfort of their homes, by watching it on television. This newspaper article about a World’s Fair TV special remarks that Helovision would be used, a system that allows footage to be filmed from a helicopter, showing the entire fair and its attractions.

article about a TV special on the 1964 World's Fair, Boston Herald newspaper article 19 April 1964

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 19 April 1964, page 61

1964 World’s Fair Memorabilia

Maybe you’re too young to have experienced the 1964 World’s Fair? Maybe you didn’t have the opportunity to attend? Chances are that you may have had a later (even a very recent) experience with retired exhibits or materials from the fair. Aside from some of the structures still remaining at the site of the fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in New York, some structures, such as the Unisphere, have been immortalized in movies including Men in Black, Iron Man 2 and Captain America.

photo of the 1964 World’s Fair Unisphere

Photo: 1964 World’s Fair Unisphere. Credit: used with permission of Gary W. Clark.

Other structures and displays from the 1964 World’s Fair can be found throughout the United States today. Been to Disneyland in Southern California? If you have and you’ve ridden on “It’s a Small World,” you’ve experienced a World’s Fair attraction. “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” another Disneyland attraction featuring an animatronic Abe, was originally featured in the Illinois State Pavilion at the fair.

photo of the “It’s a Small World” exhibit from the 1964 World’s Fair

Photo: “It’s a Small World” from the 1964 World’s Fair. Credit: used with permission of Gary W. Clark.

Dinosaurs Popular

Judging from the old newspaper articles I’ve read about the fair, and the family photos I’ve seen, it would seem that the Tyrannosaurs Rex found in the Sinclair Dinoland exhibit was the most popular dinosaur to pose by.

photo of a Tyrannosaurs Rex exhibit from the 1964 World’s Fair

Photo: Tyrannosaurs Rex exhibit from the 1964 World’s Fair. Credit: used with permission of Gary W. Clark.

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This pre-fair newspaper article even encourages photographers to take a “wide angle lens for full length shots and a telephoto lens for portraits.”

Cameras Catch Dinosaurs on Prowl (at the 1964 World's Fair), Richmond Times newspaper article 10 November 1963

Richmond Times (Richmond, Virginia), 10 November 1963, page 142

Those dinosaurs from Dinoland can still be seen today, found in several states: T Rex and Brontosaurus are found at the Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas; the Cleveland Zoo has Ankylosaurus; and Stegosaurus can be found at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, just to name a few.

Another Popular Exhibit

Dinosaurs aren’t the only exhibits that found a permanent home elsewhere. The US Royal Tire Ferris Wheel currently resides in Allen Park, Michigan, as a static display.

photo of the US Royal Tire Ferris Wheel from the 1964 World’s Fair

Photo: US Royal Tire Ferris Wheel from the 1964 World’s Fair. Credit: used with permission of Gary W. Clark.

Old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives, are a great place to look for articles that can help enhance your family’s story of going to the World’s Fair.

Genealogy Tip: When searching GenealogyBank for events your family attended, utilize the keyword search and indicate the words that you want the search to include—and even the words to exclude. Then narrow your search by a date or date range as well as a place. However, in the case of a large event like the World’s Fair, it would be featured in newspapers all over the United States—so don’t limit the location for your initial search.

To learn more about the 1964-65 fair, also check out the book The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair by Bill Cotter and Bill Young.

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* The Story of the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair by Bill Young on nywf64.com. Accessed 20 May 2014. http://www.nywf64.com/fair_story01.shtml
** You can read more about the fair’s attractions at the nywf64 website: http://www.nywf64.com/index.html

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