Fable, fact, and food fads at the fair

A Hundred years ago, people from every corner of the United States began pouring into St. Louis. From April 30 to Dec. 1, 1904, some 20 million visitors toured the 1,240-acre Louisiana Centennial Purchase Exposition - the St. Louis World's Fair. Besides the 1904 Summer Olympics, there were pavilions from 62 nations and 43 states, a working coal mine, a statue of Teddy Roosevelt made of butter, a mile-long swath of amusements and rides, and food. Food that visitors had never tasted before.

Only a handful of the 1,500 buildings constructed for the fair remain. But hamburgers, hot dogs, ice-cream cones, cotton candy, and peanut butter endure. All of them have been labeled as "inventions" of the St. Louis World's Fair.

But did an ice-cream seller really use waffles when he ran out of plates? Did a sausage vendor really ask his brother-in-law for buns? We decided to look at the legends. Here's what we found:

Out of gloves? Try a hot dog

It's true that sausages used to be sold solo. Because they were served hot, they were sold with a glove. That way, customers wouldn't get their hands all greasy.

The story goes that one day at the St. Louis Fair, Bavarian sausage seller Anton Feuchtwanger ran out of clean gloves. He asked his brother-in-law, a baker, to bake some buns. Feuchtwanger served the sausages in buns. People liked them and began asking for them. And so the hot dog was born. But it wasn't called a "hot dog" until 1906, when cartoonist T.A. Dorgan drew a dachshund in a bun. He labeled it a "hot dog" because he couldn't spell "dachshund."

Fact: To be frank, it's all false. Not only were sausages served in buns before 1904, they also were called hot dogs before 1906.

The most likely origin of the hot dog, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, is that Americans adopted the practice after seeing German immigrants eating sausages this way. By 1893, the item was commonly sold at ballparks.

As for "hot dog," the name was used as early as 1890, when the Yale Record printed a poem praising the glories of "the dog."

"We thought the story about the cartoon was gospel," says Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the NHDSC. "The Smithsonian did a major piece on hot dogs, though, and they couldn't find the cartoon."

Sharing burgers worldwide

Myth: Serving customers in his Athens, Texas, diner, Fletcher Davis wondered how his servings of ground beef would taste between two slices of bread. His patrons enjoyed the new sandwich so much that they took up a collection to send Davis to the fair so he could present his creation to all.

Germans at the fair (St. Louis has a large German immigrant population) called the sandwich a "hamburger," because people in Hamburg, Germany, eat lots of ground beef.

Fact: The hamburger was definitely at the St. Louis World's Fair. A reporter from the New York Tribune wrote about "the innovation." It's possible that Davis was present, too: Photographs show "Old Dave's Hamburger Stand" at the event. But was it invented there? Baloney.

"There are innumerable claims as to when the hamburger began," says David Hogan, author of "Selling 'Em by the Sack" (New York University Press, 1997), the story of White Castle hamburgers. "The fact is, it's been around forever. Its appearance at the fair just gave it national exposure."

Much like hot dogs, hamburgers were the food of German immigrants before they became a cornerstone of American cuisine.

Manufacturing 'fairy floss'

Myth: Invented in 1897 by Tennessee candymakers William Morrison and John Wharton, the threads of spun sugar known as "cotton candy" were introduced to the world in St. Louis.

Fact: While it is not known for certain who invented cotton candy, Wharton and Morrison did patent the first electric cotton candy machine in 1899. The duo took their device to the fair, where they sold the confection under the name "fairy floss."

"Cotton candy had been around years before," says Pam Vaccaro, author of "Beyond the Ice Cream Cone: The Whole Scoop on Food at the 1904 World's Fair" (Enid Press, 2004), "but it was so laborious to make it that it wasn't used." The machine made it accessible to the average person.

Ice cream in a rolled zalabia

Myth: One day at the St. Louis World's Fair, a teenage vendor named Arnold Fomachou began to run out of plates and spoons to serve his ice cream. He asked Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian concessionaire next to his booth, what to do. Hamwi gave him some of his zalabia, thin wafflelike pastries from the Middle East. He told Fomachou to roll them into cone shapes and serve ice cream in them. Customers liked them so much that Fomachou continued to serve his ice cream in zalabia.

Fact: There are several versions of this story. Most involve an inventive Syrian and a lack of dishes. One thing is certain: The first ice cream cone was not served at the fair. In 1903, an Italian immigrant named Italo Marchiony had been given the first US patent for an ice-cream cone.

"The only thing that comes remotely close to being the first at the fair," says Ms. Vaccaro, "was that style of cone, the pointed cone. They called it a 'cornucopia.' "

A new-old product

Myth: C.H. Summer introduced peanut butter at the St. Louis World's Fair. He called it a health food.

Fact: Not only was peanut butter not invented at the fair, it may not have been popularized there, either.

"There is no primary evidence that anyone in St. Louis had anything to do with [popularizing peanut butter]," says Andrew Smith, culinary historian and author of "Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea" (University of Illinois Press, 2002). "If peanut butter was at the fair, it was already popular. People have been grinding it and using it in soups for millennia."

It is true that peanut butter was advertised as a health food because it was considered a good source of protein.

Dr. John Kellogg, a physician, claims the first peanut butter patent, "a process for preparing nut meat" in 1895. (Does his name sound familiar? Kellogg also invented corn flakes.)

Was anything invented at the St. Louis Fair? Yes. It was the first time anyone bought ... puffed rice.

"It's ironic," Vaccaro comments. "The one thing that really was introduced at the fair didn't get that popular at all."

As for the other edibles, they may not have been invented at the fair, but they probably owe their popularity to the exposure they received there.

"Twenty million people came to St. Louis that year," says Lyndon Irwin, a member of the St. Louis World's Fair Society and a history professor at Southwest Missouri State University. "There's a pretty good chance they tried one of these foods and then went home and said, 'You're not going to believe what I ate at the fair.' "

St. Louis: a fair to remember

The planet has been host to at least 30 major world's fairs. Why was the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair so special?

It wasn't the first world's fair. That title goes to London's 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, organized by Prince Albert and Henry Cole to showcase England's industrial prowess.

Then, some 13 world's fairs after that one, came the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. It was the largest ever, and the most spectacular to date. It not only commemorated the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, it also celebrated America's accomplishments and offered a glimpse of its future as an industrial - and world - leader. This fair, like others, let visitors explore the world outside their everyday experience - other cultures, new inventions, new scientific advancements. It was also a marketing man's dream - so many visitors!

In today's world of instant news, some see little need for a world's fair. Others insist on the value of firsthand experience, and of bringing together diverse people, products, and ideas. The next world's fair is in Seto, Japan, from March 25 to Sept. 25, 2005.

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