Eating (and Drinking) Your Way Around the World
by Urso Chappell
When you get enough people together for any human endeavor, food will inevitably become an integral part of that effort. This is so true when a world’s fair happens, its hard to imagine an expo without food. You likely don’t know the language of any given foreign country, but taste buds are universal. It might be difficult to try your first reindeer kabob, however.
In the decades since the first world’s fair in London in 1851, expos have afforded folks the opportunity to sample food from around the world. They’ve also allowed for the development of new home-grown creations and classic fair foods that might not be haute cuisine, but become part of culture.
Some tales are hard to verify completely and become local lore, but be assured that at any given world’s fair, plenty of food and drinks are consumed and you can bet if there’s a Germany Pavilion, beer won’t be far away.
Listed here are some noteworthy examples where food and drink intersected with world’s fairs. Rest assured, though, that every world’s fair had a wide assortment of food on offer: from carts, to quick-serve restaurants, to lavish five-star establishments.
Not surprisingly, the story of food and expos will continue in Yeosu in 2012, but also in Milan in 2015, when it hosts Expo 2015 under the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” the first world’s fair with food as its organizing topic.
Unfortunately, since I’m based in the United States, my research and experience is heavily weighed toward North American expos. I’d love to see responses to this blog from those who have stories from European, Asian, and Australian world’s fairs.
Sometimes it’s not always about what you eat, but where you eat it. One of the most famous restaurant views was created for the 1889 Exposition Universelle: The Eiffel Tower. Although it’s a widely praised structure today, the design was often criticized in its day. Ironically, some critics of the tower were known to frequent the tower’s restaurant since it provided views of Paris unobstructed by the tower.
Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition saw the introduction of many popular foods in the United States, some of which are now known worldwide: Cracker Jack, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, Cream of Wheat, and Shredded Wheat.
1894 San Francisco
After Chicago hosted the huge 1893 World’s Fair, many of the exhibits were put on a train and sent to San Francisco for the more modest California Mid-Winter Exposition. Many San Franciscans aren’t even aware of this event, the first of three world’s fairs held in the city, but it gave us an American classic: The Chinese fortune cookie.
What’s even stranger is that it was introduced to the world at the… Japanese exhibit. You can still visit the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park and enjoy a fortune cookie today.
1904 St. Louis
No world’s fair seems to have more food-related stories than the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St. Louis. As a follow of world’s fair lore, I’m often asked about the many foodstuffs the 1904 World’s Fair is credited with creating or popularizing.
There’s some debate about which foods were truly introduced at the exposition, which were popularized there, and which were around years or decades beforehand. Pamela J. Vaccaro’s book “Beyond the Ice Cream Cone” attempts to make sense of it all. In her book, she confirms some legends, hedges her bets on some, and dispels a few.
Those that are confirmed in her book are cotton candy (also known as “fairy floss”) and puffed rice. The most well known food associated with 1904 St. Louis would be the ice cream cone, but there are differing accounts as to whether it was invented on site or simply popularized there.
Sometimes it isn’t the food itself that makes a splash, but where it’s served. The Space Needle brought us one of the first revolving restaurants. Nearly 50 years later, you can still dine 150 meters (500 feet) above Seattle Center and enjoy the view in every direction. Just remember not to place anything valuable on the (non-revolving) window ledge.
1964-’65 New York
Ask almost anyone who attended the 1964-’65 New York World’s Fair what they most remember and it seems that Belgian waffles are in the top five. These waffles, covered with whipped cream and strawberries seem almost ubiquitous when going through old family photos of the era.
1984 New Orleans
Not all foods introduced to the public at a world’s fair are a resounding success. New Orleans’ 1984 Louisiana World Exposition introduced the world to pizza-on-a-stick. I suspect the world politely declined since I haven’t seen it since.
I was there, as a 19 year old, at Vancouver’s Expo ’86, but I can’t claim to have built up the nerve to try the Alberta Pavilion’s reindeer kabobs.
I did, however, visit one of the more usual McDonald’s restaurants, though. Built specifically for the world’s fair, the McBarge (officially known as Friendship 500) was the first floating McDonald’s restaurant. Today, it floats empty and unused. Several schemes have been proposed to use resurrect the sculpture in the subsequent years.
It would be wonderful to see the McBarge someday because a floating Expo ’86 museum.
1998-2010: A Personal Story
One of my own stories about world’s fair food starts in Lisbon at Expo ’98. The story continues on to Hannover at Expo 2000, Aichi Prefecture at Expo 2005, and then on to Shanghai’s Expo 2010. One of my favorite places to eat on site has been the Sri Lanka Pavilion’s restaurant. I don’t know this for sure, but I think the same fixtures were used at all four. In a way, I can say I’ve eaten at a single restaurant in four different countries… so far. I’m hoping Sri Lanka brings its restaurant to Yeosu for Expo 2012. I wonder how many years before they start recognizing me as a regular.
I always love to see what The Netherlands has in store at world’s fairs. At Expo 2010, I was delighted to see a cart selling hot stroopwafels, thin baked batter with a caramel-like syrup inside. It’s rare to see these outside Holland and even rarer to see them made by hand. Seeing lines queue up of Chinese folks likely trying them for the first time, I wondered if I was seeing the start of a new phenomenon in China. Would they, too, become stroopwafel addicts?
Soon we’ll find out what’s in store inside the gates of Expo 2012, but it seems likely there will be ice cream cones. When you sit down to enjoy it on the expo grounds, make sure you thank whoever it was that brought them to St. Louis in 1904 and ponder what that person would think about someone on the other side of the planet eating one 108 years later at another world’s fair.