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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Find Grandma’s Recipes in Old Newspaper Food Columns

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena searches old newspapers to examine food columns that may have provided the recipes our ancestors used—and shows how those food columns that featured recipe contests may contain names and addresses helpful to our family history research.

What’s in your grandmother’s recipe box? Chances are there are a variety of recipes that are either handwritten on index cards or clipped from newspapers and magazines. Maybe you have some of those yellowed newspaper clippings stuffed in a recipe box or pasted in a cookbook.

photo of a recipe book with old newspaper recipe clippings pasted in

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

Newspaper food columns provided women with recipes by food writers, nutritionists and even neighbors. In some cases, food column contests solicited reader recipes centered on a specific theme. (For more about newspaper recipe contests see my earlier GenealogyBank Blog post, Newspaper Recipe Contests: Was Your Ancestor a Contest Winner?) Whether your ancestor actually participated in submitting a recipe or just cut out her favorites, these columns were an important way to add variety to the family’s dinner table.

Tongue and Pickles

Newspaper food columns provide us a glimpse of the food our families ate throughout the decades. This 1917 column from an Arizona newspaper is a compilation of money-saving recipes that were awarded prizes by the newspaper. Recipe columns published in the newspapers during war time would concentrate on saving money and, in the case of World War I and II, how to make do with limited quantities due to food rationing. In the paragraph introducing the recipes, the writer suggests that readers clip these columns and add them to cookbooks, or paste an envelope into a cookbook and then place clippings inside the envelope. In this article, notice that women’s names and addresses are included with their submissions—a potentially helpful clue for your family history research. The first recipe, provided by Miss Chloe Ray for Braised Tongue, even includes a suggestion for where to buy the tongue.

Recipes Which Help Reduce the Cost of Living, Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper article 2 March 1917

Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 2 March 1917, page 5

In some cases newspaper columnists wrote articles with everything from recipes to food advice. “Jane Eddington,” the pen name for Caroline S. Maddocks, was a syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune started its food column in 1910 and Eddington penned her articles until her retirement in 1930. She was then succeeded by women who penned the food column under the moniker “Mary Meade” until 1974.*

In Eddington’s column for 5 September 1913, she discusses pickles and provides some recipes. Making pickles wasn’t a small job; these recipes call for over 100 cucumbers!

Recipes for Home Cooking, Plain Dealer newspaper article 5 September 1913

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 5 September 1913, page 11

Food and “Womanly” Advice

Some recipe columns were about much more than sharing recipes and meal ideas. In some cases they were advice columns. The Chicago Tribune said the purpose of its column was to “preach daily that cooking is a noble as well as an ancient duty.”**

In the following column from a 1909 Pennsylvania newspaper, “Womanly Answers to Womanly Questions,” recipes are but one form of advice given. Other advice has to do with other “womanly” issues like quilt cleaning. Lunch meal planning suggestions in this particular column include “sardines cut up with ham and pickles make a good filling for sandwiches” and desserts such as vinegar pie and fried apple turnovers.

Womanly Answers to Womanly Questions, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 24 September 1909

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 24 September 1909, page 11

Another recipe/advice column, written by Miss Lilian Tingle and entitled “Answers to Correspondence,” provides recipe help to readers. In this column from a 1917 Oregon newspaper, she provides everything from recipes for mushroom catsup to potato doughnuts to corned beef. Like the previous example, although recipes seem to be the main focus there is a homemaking question in between the recipes for how to care for houseplants. This column is a good example of how food preferences over time change, so that what was popular to eat at one time may not be to most people’s liking today.

food column, Oregonian newspaper article 4 November 1917

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 4 November 1917, page 7

Do you have a favorite food column in your local newspaper? Do you have clippings from your grandmother’s favorite column? Maybe your family still eats a family favorite clipped from an old newspaper. Recipe newspaper columns are just one place where we can find the names of the women in our families and better understand what they had for dinner.

photo of an old newspaper recipe clipping pasted into a cookbook

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

Share your favorite food column with us in the comments section. Better yet, if you have newspaper clippings or recipe cards with family recipes, take a picture of them and post them to our public Old Fashioned Family Recipes board on Pinterest. Get an invite to participate by following the board. We look forward to trying your favorite family recipes!

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* Serving Food News for 150 Years by Kristin Eddy. July 16, 1997. Chicago Tribune. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-07-16/entertainment/9707170320_1_food-page-pen-cake-mixes accessed 6 October 2013.

** Ibid.

Newspaper Recipe Contests: Was Your Ancestor a Contest Winner?

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena shows how recipe contests that ran in local newspapers can turn out to be a surprisingly good source of genealogy information about your female ancestors.

Have you ever won a contest sponsored by your local newspaper? Newspapers run all kinds of promotions aimed at encouraging new readership and subscribers. Contests commonly run by newspapers include photo contests, recipe contests, writing contests and coloring contests. By participating in these newspaper contests you can win tickets to an event, have your artwork featured in a special edition, or even win a cash award. The added bonus of winning a newspaper contest is that your name and perhaps even your picture will appear in the newspaper.

Newspaper contests can include all generations. Many years ago my oldest son was one of the “winners” in a newspaper coloring contest. All of the winners had their picture taken with their award-winning entry, and these photographs were published in the local paper. Since that time I’ve had other adults tell me about winning coloring contests sponsored by their local newspapers when they were children.

Are you looking for genealogy records about female family members? A newspaper recipe contest may be the one place your ancestor had her name published—and possibly her picture.

In some cases the winning recipes would have been featured in additional publications after their initial run in the newspaper. Some newspapers even went on to publish a cookbook featuring the recipes submitted from their contest winners.

The Daily News Cookbook, 1896, title page

The Daily News Cookbook, 1896, title page. From Google Books.

The Daily News Cook Book (1896) is a cookbook of menus originally contributed to the Chicago Record newspaper’s daily contest for “menu for a day.” Many of the menus end with the name and street address of the woman submitting it. The recipes in this cookbook were contributed not only by women from the Chicago area, but also from other parts of the United States—as shown in the following example, a contribution from a Mrs. Tebbetts in San Diego, California.

The Daily News Cookbook, 1896, page 12

The Daily News Cookbook, 1896, page 12. From Google Books.

The Los Angeles Times was another newspaper that conducted recipe contests and then published cookbooks based on entrees. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, A. L. Wyman was one of their food writers and tested over 7,000 entrees for their 1923 recipe contest. Entrees, both the winning and the losing, were then compiled into the Los Angeles Times Prize Cook Book.*

The great thing about recipe contests was that even women who lived out of town, and for that matter out of state, may have been featured. This is a good reminder that while it is important to search for your ancestor and their place of residence in a database, sometimes a search on a name alone without a location may yield unanticipated results—your ancestor’s name may pop up in a source far from home.

This 1922 newspaper article points out that the week’s recipe winners included those from other Louisiana cities in addition to New Orleans. The two winners from New Orleans, one winning for her deviled kidney dish and the other for her Bordelaise sauce, had their names and street addresses published.

Recipe Contest Honors Divided by Housewives, Times-Picayune newspaper article 23 December 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 December 1922, page 19

While newspapers held their own recipe competitions, they also reported on other recipe contests. This 1928 newspaper article reports on a contest held by the food company Libby, and says that winning recipes would be published in future advertisements for that company. The winner’s names and addresses are provided—key clues to help you trace your family history.

Local Women Win in Recipe Contest, Riverside Daily Press newspaper article 19 October 1928

Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, California), 19 October 1928, page 7

All kinds of food companies sponsored recipe contests. Consider this one from Sapphire Sardine Company, offering cash prizes for recipes that featured sardines as the principal ingredient.

$50 Prize Recipe Contest!, Evening Tribune newspaper article 12 April 1923

Evening Tribune (San Diego, California), 12 April 1923, page 8

While newspapers documented the times and events in our ancestors’ lives, they also served a social function. As you research female ancestors, consider the activities they may have pursued in looking for mentions of their name. Are recipe contests a source of genealogy? Yes, they place your ancestor in a specific place in time. Like more traditional genealogical sources they are a names list that can be used to pursue other leads.

*“The Wyman Test,” by Leilah Bernsteon, July 5, 2000 available online http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jul/05/food/fo-47809