Iconic products got their start at Chicago's Columbian Exposition
From breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, many familiar brands debuted at Chicago's Columbian Exposition, which at its 120th anniversary retains its hold on our imagination.
De Cecco, a premium Italian pasta company, recently held a luncheon to celebrate "Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair" at the Field Museum, an institution that itself sprang from the fair, held in what is now Chicago's Jackson Park. The company wants everyone to know it won a gold medal at the Fair -- and hopefully convince them the quality has never wavered.
Likewise Pabst Blue Ribbon beer has traded on Columbian glory for decades.
Many of the foods, it turns out, were what today we call "ethnic" -- familar to people from certain countries, U.S. regions or economic status.
And several of these entrepreneurs settled in Chicago after the Fair. After all, this is the center of the country, and all the nation's raw products from corn to cattle came here to be traded.
Here's a look at some of the foods that were introduced, honored or promoted at the Fair.
De Cecco pasta
A non-Italian pasta lover has difficulty imagining 160 pasta varieties, but De Cecco says it's important to make them with premium wheat, water from an Italian mountain spring and traditional bronze dies. But the real secret is the drying process.
"The vast majority of companies dry their pasta in three or four hours. Ours takes 18 to 36 hours to dry," said Marco de Ceglie, chief executive officer of the company's USA division. "The temperature is little more than the ambient air."
And why is that important? At the higher temperatures the outside of the pasta dries and indeed gets partially cooked, but the inside does not, he said. Then when you throw the heat-dried pasta in boiling water, it might look al dente, but is not.
And de Ceglie dreams of the day De Cecco will make gluten-free pasta, but only if the new product tastes as good and performs as well as the traditional.
So why are they called hamburgers if they are made from beef? Well, according to a student report at the University of Michigan, the ones sold at the Fair actually were ground pork.
Regardless whether that is true or not, they really got their name from the city of Hamburg, Germany, where ground beef and onions were popular. And at the time of our Fair workers who ate lunch from horse-drawn food wagons needed it between bread for carryout convenience, according to the website restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com Tourists strolling through the Fair probably appreciated the sandwiches, too.
Vienna is not only an elegant city, but it has a reputation for fine sausage makers, and that's why Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichl, immigrants from Budapest, gave their company that name, according to an article in a publication of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. The two came to Chicago to sell at the Fair, and were so successful they stayed, and their company grew over the decades.
The sausages made such a hit at the Fair because they were all beef and incorporated kosher spices, the article speculates. And while most of the brands that sparkled at the Fair are part of huge corporations, Vienna is still independent.
The beer company, now part of a conglomeration of many beer brands, dates its history to 1844 and a German brewer who moved to Milwaukee. Some sources say the company was bragging about blue ribbons from earlier fairs even before doing so well in Chicago.
The company's trade pavilion in the Columbian Agriculture Building was a sight to see.
"The entire exterior of the pavilion was highlighted with gold leaf and crowned by a magnificent art glass dome," according to an article on the website of the Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, pabstmansion.com, Inside was a 13-square-foot model of the company's buildings, washed in gold and reputed to cost $100,000 to build.
The museum claims a gold medal for the brew, saying no blue ribbons were granted.
But we bet PBR fans don't care a whit.
OK, many sources say carbonated diet soda was introduced at the fair, but darned if we can find out what it was sweetened with. Obviously, a product that went on to success in many incarnations.
This is a great story. A Chicago woman named Nancy Green, who was born as a slave in 1834, became "Aunt Jemima" to sell the ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour. She was so popular at the Fair -- telling stories and cooking delicious pancakes -- that special policemen had to be hired to keep people moving. Fair officials gave her a medal, and The Davis Milling Co. received over 50,000 orders.
Davis signed the "pancake queen" to a lifetime contract, and indeed she was Aunt Jemima until she died in a car crash in Chicago. This article is part of the African-American studies archives at princeton.edu.
This brand, like others tied to the Fair, is now part of PepsiCo. And the Aunt Jemima illustration, which originated from a minstrel show, was severely criticized when Americans became more conscious of the harms of racial stereotyping, and has been modernized.
Frederick William Rueckheim, a German immigrant, started selling steam-popped corn in Chicago in 1871 after the great fire, according to the Cracker Jack Collectors Association, crackerjackcollectors.com.
Then this entrepreneur sold a mixture of his popcorn, molasses and peanuts at the Fair. It was a few years later before Louis Rueckheim, F.W.'s brother and business partner, discovered the process for keeping those molassses-covered kernels from sticking together.
You'll find the treat in sacks now, but boxes are still available -- with prizes or surprises in each.
Cracker Jack and other Frito-Lay products are owned by PepsiCo.
Cream of Wheat
A North Dakota company introduced Cream of Wheat at the Fair, and the publicity made it so popular that four years later the business had to move to Minneapolis for expansion.
Cream of Wheat, which once used the comic strip character Li'l Abner as a "spokesman," is now part of B & G Foods and launching the celebration of its 120th anniversary.
The black chef on the package has also raised controversy with some saying he is a symbol of segregation and subservience, while the company has always maintained he represents comfort and wholesome food.
Generations of grateful chocolate eaters have the Fair to thank.
The Columbian Exposition inspired Milton Hershey, who owned a successful Pennsylvania caramel company, to take the brilliant step of purchasing a complete chocolate manufacturing process he saw operating at the Fair.
"Milton Hershey's greatest contribution to the food industry was in the manufacture of milk chocolate. He was not, of course, the first to make it. The Swiss began manufacturing milk chocolate as a luxury item in 1876. But Milton Hershey was the first to make it commercially, with mass production techniques, and using fresh milk," according to the company's archives. hersheyarchives.org.
He worked for years to perfect the formula, and made milk chocolate affordable for generations of grateful people.
Mint gums have survived the popularity of Juicy Fruit, a gum flavor that William Wrigley introduced at the Fair.
Wrigley was selling scouring soap for his father when he decided to give away baking soda with the product. The baking soda was more popular than the soap, so he started selling that and giving away gum. You know the rest of the story, as told on the University of Michigan website, umich.edu.
H.J. Heinz Company's Sour Spiced Gherkins were a big hit at the Fair, according to an intriguing and rich website apparently set up to trace the history of a Victorian era actress named E.J. Phillips,
The lore is one million people flocked to the company's booth and got small pickle pins.