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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5 Fave Genealogy Articles: ‘Titanic,’ Women, Ads, Ephemera & Food

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena reflects on some of her favorite genealogy topics that she’s researched for the GenealogyBank Blog.

One great thing about working as a writer is that you have the opportunity to research and learn about a variety of subjects. Through my work on the GenealogyBank Blog I’ve had the opportunity to write about some of my favorite genealogy topics and expand my knowledge of records and history in the process. What are my favorite GenealogyBank Blog articles? Check out the following personally-chosen list.

Titanic

photo of the Titanic departing Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912

Photo: the Titanic departing Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912. Credit: F. G. O. Stuart; Wikipedia.

One of my interests is the sinking of the Titanic. I probably share that interest with many of my fellow genealogists, who find the study of Titanic history fascinating. Probably no surprise to regular readers of this blog, the two aspects that I am particularly interested in are: the food that was served on the Titanic; and the women, passengers and staff who were aboard that fateful voyage. Luckily for me I was able to write some articles about this, including Tracing Titanic Genealogy: Survivor Passenger Lists & More which looks at some of the Titanic passenger lists with names that you can find in historical newspapers in the days and weeks after the tragedy. The subject of food on the Titanic could fill a whole book, and it has, but I took a brief look at what passengers ate in the article Eating on the Titanic: Massive Quantities of Food on the Menu.

photo of the First Class Reception Room on the Titanic

Photo: First Class Reception Room on the Titanic. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Flickr: The Commons.

Women: Tracing Your Female Ancestry

photo of the family of B. F. Clark

Photo: “Family of B. F. Clark, 219 N. 4th Street.” Credit: Library of Congress.

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I’ve had the opportunity to write about female ancestors quite a bit, including how to trace them, and unique sources to use. One of my favorite articles about female ancestors on the GenealogyBank Blog is one that I didn’t write. A must-read for every genealogist is Mary Harrell-Sesniak’s 8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry. Do yourself a favor and read and re-read this important post to better understand how to find your female ancestors. If you want to learn more about name variations, another one of Mary’s articles, Ancestral Name Searches: 4 Tips for Tracing Surname Spellings, is very helpful. Sometimes it’s the way we search that makes it difficult to find our ancestors in the newspaper.

Researching Old Newspaper Advertisements

personal ads for missing husbands, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisements 12 September 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 September 1907, page 8

I have to admit that the one aspect of newspaper research I would have never guessed that I would enjoy is the advertisements. It’s here that you can learn everything, from what your ancestor valued by perusing the Lost and Found advertisements, to the heartbreaking advertisements women placed looking for missing (or perhaps purposely absent) husbands. Think old newspaper advertisements have nothing to do with “real” genealogy? Take a look at some of the rich content newspaper ads provide in my articles How to Use Newspaper Lost & Found Ads for Genealogy Research and Missing Men: Lost Husband Ads in Newspapers for Genealogy.

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Ephemera

photo of an old letter

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

I love ephemera. It’s such an important part of genealogy but it’s something not many family historians are familiar with. Ephemera are loosely defined as items that were not meant for long-term archiving. Such items might be letters, postcards, images, maps, posters, even newspapers. Ephemera tend to be things that are thrown away. Not only are newspapers an important source for genealogy researchers, they even give us a look at our ancestors’ ephemera. For example, letters of all kinds are published in the newspaper. You can learn more about researching correspondence in the newspaper from the article Genealogy Tips for Researching Letters in Newspapers. Another helpful article, Dear Mother: Family Letters and Your Genealogy, points out that not all family letters remain private between the writer and recipient. In some cases, letters were printed in the newspaper giving us a glimpse into our ancestors’ lives. Probably one of my favorite projects was researching the article Finding Ancestors’ Names Can Be Child’s Play: Paper Doll Comics. I was very surprised to learn that children (and in some cases adults) were encouraged to send in paper doll fashion designs. These were published along with the name and address of the creator. Just one more way kids were documented in the newspaper.

Food History

photo of a book filled with newspaper recipe clippings

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

A question I’m often asked at genealogy presentations is: why should a family historian care about food history? The answer is quite simple: food history helps us better understand our ancestors, and brings interest to the stories of their lives. When I ask family historians to think about a Thanksgiving from the past, it’s the people who were there, the stories, and the memories of what was served that flood their memories. Those stories deserve to be written down to be enjoyed by our descendants. Want to know more about food history? Check out these articles: Rationing Thanksgiving Dinner during World War I; The First Foodie: Clementine Paddleford; and Find Grandma’s Recipes in Old Newspaper Food Columns. Take some time to peruse recipe columns in the newspaper from your grandma’s and great-grandma’s hometown to see if she submitted her favorite recipe to the newspaper, and if you happen across one join GenealogyBank’s Old Fashioned Family Recipes board and share it with the Pinterest community.

Why read the GenealogyBank Blog? Because it is where you will learn more about genealogy, history, and newspaper research. Whether it’s tips, new ideas, new content or personal research examples, you’ll find them here (check out this one written by Scott Phillips about a GenealogyBank member’s discovery: A Fascinating Genealogy Success Story: Mystery of Missing Ancestors Solved). The GenealogyBank Blog provides you with continuing education for your newspaper research and genealogy in general.

Have a favorite GenealogyBank Blog post? Let me know what it is in the comments section below.

Happy reading!

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