. . . there were World’s Fairs.
That’s how new foods and food trends were introduced back in the pre-internet days. Have you ever wondered, while walking around on a hot summer day licking an ice cream cone, “How did this luscious thing come to be?” Well, at a World’s Fair, 1904. St. Louis. Although an Italian guy in New York was applying for a patent for the crispy waffle cone, the cone hit the masses at the St. Louis World’s Fair, permanently influencing American culture. Popcorn, hot dogs, Belgian waffles, Dr. Pepper, Pabst Blue Ribbon, all were popularized at World Expositions during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, before photos and articles and celebrity chefs endorsed all manner of quirky trends. (Seaweed that tastes like bacon? Biscuits and Gravy Potato chips?)
I was lucky enough to be part of World’s Fair food trending from 1984 to 1988, as Executive Chef for Chuck Sanders––“Mr. World’s Fair,” in New Orleans, Vancouver and Australia. Exposing the masses to International foods was the culinary delight of the day, when French restaurants and Continental Cuisine were considered outside the box.
Mr. Sanders was an interesting sort, a true “carny” we called him, a son of poor farmers turned millionaire from his food concessions, starting with two Belgian waffle stands at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Complete with too-big suits and a permanent stogie hanging from his lip (please don’t let that ash drip in the spaghetti sauce, Sir), we all feared him.
World’s Fairs were so exciting because they were a microcosm of lust. Lust for work, for play, for food, for international pavilions, for meeting other lustful sorts, and knowing that we were all teaching the world something. (I married and divorced two husbands I’d met at World’s Fairs, but that’s another story altogether). The serial concessionaires, like Chuck Sanders, all knew each other, and often swapped stories of the employee strike in Osaka, the giant cheese in Wisconsin, and oh! Montreal, ah yes, Montreal (they would say lustfully). So after being thrown into the disorganized mess of the European Village on the Mississippi river in New Orleans and rising as a high-volume-kitchen-management star, two years later, I was off to Vancouver.
Home of many of German descent, Chuck Sanders scheduled his new Executive Chef (me) for a crash course in all things sausage and sauerkraut at fellow concessionaire’s Munich Festhaus’ beer garden kitchen.
No one spoke English.
They were all men.
Old German men, it seemed to me anyway at 26.
I worked with the men for a while turning sausages on the giant Waldorf range battery, then stood on a milk crate to stir the kraut in what must have been a hundred gallon steam kettle, all those German male eyes upon me. I left that day with the secret to sauerkraut (juniper berry tea) and an appreciation for good bratwurst. Which recipes and techniques I transferred into our little German concession on the other side of the Fair.
We also had an enormous burger joint, a la Fuddruckers style (Chuck S. was notorious for stealing good ideas) where we introduced naturally low-fat buffalo burgers to the masses.
In 1988, at the Fair in Brisbane, Australia, among our international offerings of Chinese, Greek, Tex-Mex, Italian, Belgian cuisines, we introduced American food to the Aussies and other Fair goers. For a reason I cannot recall, we were not able to import Hebrew National hot dogs Down Under so I was tasked to work with Aussie hot dog makers to best replicate the American all beef dog. Now Aussie dogs were red on the outside, gray on the inside and tasted like orange peels and toenails, so this was quite an undertaking. Also at our Americana Food Festival, we featured the cuisines of Louisiana, Hawaii, New York, Southern BBQ, and yes, Chicago ––featuring the best fake American dog we could muster.
Between lunch and dinner rushes each day, I took a break from kitchen management and cruised the Fair, checking out the international offerings of China, France, Tonga, Japan, New Zealand, Bali, Jamaica and Malaysia. Oh, no, I didn’t eat, I was sick of food, but sometimes I treated myself to beers of the world while wending my way through the pavilion concessions. My favorite retreat was a little quiet time in South Australia’s Pavilion Wine Bar. Who knew in 1988 that Aussie wines were so awesome! (I did, with no Huff post!)
No German food on any of our menus this time, I only found myself at the Munich Festhaus on a few late nights post work, knowing full well I’d hate the Chicken Dance song forever.
As Chuck S. had embraced the local cuisine at Expo 84 in New Orleans and the wildly popular German cuisine in Vancouver, we had a Queensland style restaurant at ’88 which featured the local seafood specialties as barramundi and Moreton Bay bugs, endearingly called ‘bug meat.” Nowadays you can Google this (I did) and get that these bugs are actually slipper lobster. But back then, in the rush of the Fair, and only getting the meat into the restaurant sans shell, my professional explanation of the bugs was, “Lobstery crabby meat you sauté up on fish.”
Returning to the states in 1988 at 27 years old, with all this (and more!) food excitement under my belt, a regular chef’s job was well, kind of boring. Had we had internet, I could’ve kept up with people and trends, but alas, we did not. I felt isolated only cooking fish and clam chowder for Midwestern snowbirds in the Florida panhandle. Maybe they’d like a side of sauerkraut with that mahi?