Take it away, Sam

Ever wondered who we have to thank for the sugary, fattening, convenient, fast food clogging up our arteries? Mark Ellwood looks back 100 years to the 1904 St Louis World's Fair - birthplace of peanut butter, hot dogs, ice-cream cones and much, much more
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Ted Drewes ice-cream parlour is a whitewashed shack on the outskirts of St Louis, Missouri, filled with the constant hum of blenders; there are no tables, just take-out windows, the scrawled menus pasted on the glass. Yet, even on a cold March day, the line for sundaes snakes out of the carpark. What most of the shivering, scarf-wrapped people are waiting for is the house special: a Concrete - a scoop of frozen vanilla custard puréed in a blender with a choice of thickeners from chunks of chocolate to a slab of cherry pie, to a jaw-breaking consistency (hence the name). But the strangest thing about Ted's sundaes isn't their ingredients or moniker - it's the fact that they're served in a cup rather than a cone. Strange because this sweet-toothed city deep in the US's Midwest is where the ice-cream cone was invented. In fact, it was during the World's Fair of 1904 that in one short summer the city helped introduce not only cones but peanut butter, the hot dog, Dr Pepper, iced tea and candy floss

Ted Drewes ice-cream parlour is a whitewashed shack on the outskirts of St Louis, Missouri, filled with the constant hum of blenders; there are no tables, just take-out windows, the scrawled menus pasted on the glass. Yet, even on a cold March day, the line for sundaes snakes out of the carpark. What most of the shivering, scarf-wrapped people are waiting for is the house special: a Concrete - a scoop of frozen vanilla custard puréed in a blender with a choice of thickeners from chunks of chocolate to a slab of cherry pie, to a jaw-breaking consistency (hence the name). But the strangest thing about Ted's sundaes isn't their ingredients or moniker - it's the fact that they're served in a cup rather than a cone. Strange because this sweet-toothed city deep in the US's Midwest is where the ice-cream cone was invented. In fact, it was during the World's Fair of 1904 that in one short summer the city helped introduce not only cones but peanut butter, the hot dog, Dr Pepper, iced tea and candy floss too. If any city can lay claim to being the capital of the Fast Food Nation, this is it.

Staged here to celebrate the centenary of America's westward expansion, the 1904 Fair was officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition; at that time, St Louis was the fourth largest town in the US and a natural site for a spot of jolly nationalism (and a little chirpy romance, as Judy Garland would find out 40 years later in the classic musical, Meet Me in St Louis). The fair took place in a vast green space now known as Forest Park; more than 20 million people came to see exotica such as a live village shipped wholesale from the Philippines and one of the raunchy dancers performing on an entertainment strip dubbed The Pike.

Scantily clad girls aside, most of the exhibits were nakedly commercial, from lightbulbs to Bissel vacuum cleaners; there were even demonstrations showing the time-saving advantages of cooking with electricity. "Unlike Chicago's exhibition in 1893, this fair didn't focus on art and architecture, it was about what you can buy," explains Andrew Walker, director of collections for the Missouri Historical Society, "it was the dawn of the age of convenience." Nowhere was that clearer than in the Fair's fast food: take the ice-cream cone, an iconic image of the event even in contemporary accounts. "One of the most celebrated pictures taken by the official photographer running around the Fair was of a woman and her children enjoying an ice-cream cone," notes writer and food historian Suzanne Corbett. In colonial times, ice-cream had been a pricey delicacy, but by the 1870s, technical advances made it an affordable if upscale treat; in fact, the turn-of-the-century temperance movement trumpeted it as a genteel substitute for sherry.

Ideal for the clammy St Louis summer, ice-cream was offered in The Pike, but demand was so high that the stallholder ran out of plates to serve it on; that's when Ernest Hamwi - a Syrian immigrant who was making waffles next door - stepped in. He twisted one of his waffles to carry the treat and created the first ever ice-cream cone. "The cone took ice-cream out of the ice-cream parlour and fancy drawing rooms, to make it a food of the masses," explains Corbett. Several manufacturers, including the St Louis * Ice-Cream Cone Company and the Missouri Cone Company, sprang up after the fair and for many years the city was the main supplier of cones to the whole country.

Hamwi's waffle solved one of the barriers to the take off of fast food: being able to handle what you're eating. Until the fair, the few carry-out foods on offer usually came with a handy pair of gloves to keep fingers and food apart - stashed in a bun, hot dogs needed no such equipment. And these on-the-go specials quickly became a favourite not only with the throngs visiting the Fair but with spectators at the Olympic Games (which was taking place in the city at the same time) who snapped them up in their thousands.

Certainly, sausages were not invented at the Fair and frankfurters were probably brought to St Louis years before by German immigrants. But it was here that, tucked in a bun, they got a following - and a name. Rumour raged that the Filipino tribesmen in the village exhibit favoured canine cuisine and, even though their government purportedly supplied dozens of dogs for them to eat, local pets were said to be vanishing to satisfy the hunger of the savages. Seeing the publicity potential in this, savvy vendors dubbed their sausage and bun combos "hot dogs".

There was another reason, Corbett explains, that frankfurters were so hot at the time. "At the time, these sausages were a food that even the most strait-laced grandmother saw as healthy and nutritious," she says. The same was true for peanut butter. "It was marketed as a healthy food for children," Corbett continues. Peanuts were known to be packed with protein; and for several years, physicians had been fiddling with ways to launch them into the everyday diet. Cereal king John Harvey Kellogg, for example, patented a paste he created from boiled nuts with little success. The problem? Its bland flavour. It was a smart doctor from St Louis (whose name no one can now agree on) who came up with roasting the nuts first. Puréed, they now had a stronger, richer taste. The doctor marketed his paste as ideal for anyone who couldn't chew, whether through poor health or lack of teeth.

But it was yet another man, CH Sumner, who realised peanut butter's potential as a snack food and snapped up the concession to hawk it at the Fair. "He had the peanut-butter grinding apparatus on site so he could grind it freshly," Corbett says. "There is talk that he sold it with crackers or bread, and even as a carry-out item in a little tub for buyers to snack on later." Sumner's instincts were spot-on: he made more than $700 and the product was soon launched into mass production by a local entrepreneur (though it would be well into the 1930s when another company came up with the idea of stirring in nut chunks to create a crunchy version).

All that food made the Fair's visitors thirsty. Fortunately, the exhibitors were there to help. Two of the drinks launched at the Fair became favourites: iced tea and Dr Pepper. The former had existed in the Deep South for some time but settlers usually steeped the tea in a jug, left it out in the sun all day and then served it tepid. The St Louis version was brewed hot and poured over ice - an innovation thought up by a group of Chinese and Indian tea producers exhibiting at the Fair and frustrated that no one was buying their hot beverages.

As for Dr Pepper, it was introduced in Texas in 1885 (the name, a tribute to the inventor's first boss, and its oddball flavour coming from prune juice) but it took 20 years for the company to gather enough cash and courage to launch the fizzy drink nationwide; the 1904 Fair was chosen, and to pique interest, free gifts with purchase - think soda-pop watches - were offered, essentially making them the world's first Happy Meal.

Candy floss which, like Dr Pepper, pre-dated the Fair, also kicked off in 1904. The process had been cooked up in Tennessee but here its inventors marketed bundles in wooden boxes and sold almost 70,000 portions of the stuff.

But just why was junk food the legacy of the St Louis show? "There was a boom in product development in the late-19th century," explains Corbett, "and at the same time fast food became acceptable for all classes to eat and enjoy." And not only were these snacks cheap so every fair-goer could afford them, they were also marketed as hot, new 20th-century fads. Unlike past fairs in Chicago or Paris, which looked back at the city's achievements, the mercantile, factory-packed town of St Louis chose to look forwards and predict the products of the next 100 years (and, in the process, stake its claim to mass producing them). Timing was also critical because, as Corbett explains, "by 1904, more people were able to travel than ever before but it still hadn't been considered socially polite to walk around eating things. As communications and transport became faster, food followed suit and became more mobile and more packable."

But the success of iced teas and ice-creams was down to marketing as much as mobility: World's Fairs were the primetime "infomercials" of their day, with the selling power of an ad during Coronation Street and a splash in the Sun combined. Paul Greenhalgh, the former head of research at the Victoria & Albert Museum who is working on a book about World's Fairs notes that various brands, such as Thomas Cook, also owe their pre-eminence to these exhibitions (in Cook's case, London 1851). "There were Olympiads alongside the fairs, they were political events, with giant congresses of doctors and medics, and huge trade fairs," says Greenhalgh. And it was this convergence of business and entertainment that gave absolutely everyone a reason to visit.

The acres of publicity also helped - daily bulletins of the Fair's goings on were such a staple of newspapers across the world that the St Louis board even instituted a Department of Exploitation to churn out propaganda. It was a chance that entrepreneurs such as the Dr Pepper company and CH Sumner seized wisely. "World's Fairs were vital for producing the modern popular and high cultural world," Greenhalgh believes, "from blockbuster exhibitions to all forms of natural history displays as well as the Olympics and Olympia-type trade shows such as the Motor Show."

Though Cook may have London to thank for his travellers' cheques, other cooks - especially reluctant ones - will thank St Louis for ushering in the era of culinary convenience. And while there are always competing claims over the origins of foodstuffs (some say a circus helper invented candy floss 50 years earlier, and sausages are namechecked in the Bible), what's indisputable is that the 1904 St Louis Fair marked the Triumph of Take-Out. After all, contemporary accounts single out a seventh dish as a breakout hit: Chinese fried rice.

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