From the ice cream cone to hot dogs, hamburgers and even iced tea, the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis has long been lauded for many firsts of the food industry. While those claims mostly are myths, as local author Pam Vaccaro explains in her book, Beyond the Ice Cream Cone: The Whole Scoop on Food at the 1904 World's Fair, St. Louis certainly served as an international stage for the jumping-off point of these food items' popularity during that memorable early 20th century spring and summer.
With ice cream cone, club sandwich or hot dog in hand, all classes of more than 20 million people from throughout the world could be seen strolling among more than 1,500 buildings amid the almost 1,300-acre fair—which stretched from modern-day Forest Park through the Washington University campus to Big Bend Boulevard. “Food is the common denominator among all people—at the fair and still today,” Vaccaro says. And the World’s Fair was an exceptionally vast stage—as large as 13 Disney World Magic Kingdoms—where chefs showcased foods from their part of the globe at about 130 eateries.
Amid this year’s 110th anniversary of the fair, June 14, 2014 will mark a unique homage to that historic food and culture with a World’s Fair Supper at The Restaurant at The Cheshire, prepared by executive chef Rex Hale and staff, along with a tour of Forest Park’s Art Hill, where some of the most notable fair food was served in 1904. “This is a one-of-a-kind event. We want to bring the World’s Fair back—make it alive again,” notes Vaccaro, co-organizer of the tour. “And Chef Hale is cooking food that has never been done before.”
This time around, the rare event will be a private tour for the local chapter of Les Dames d’Scoffier, a philanthropic group of leaders in the culinary field. But organizers say similar events may be put on for the public in the future. The inaugural tour will kick off at The Market at The Cheshire, where guests will enjoy flavored coffee—prune and banana—popular during the World’s Fair, while Vaccaro gives a presentation focused on the event’s storied history.
Next, the group will travel by bus to Forest Park’s Art Hill to visit about six stations where restaurant buildings and booths at the World’s Fair once stood. Attendees will be served fair food, such as ice consommé and popcorn, as Vaccaro shares stories about how the fare played a pivotal role in the event. “Just to stand on that ground and have Pam tell you about it is pretty thrilling,” notes Beth Heidrich, programs chair for Les Dames d’Scoffier and co-organizer of the tour.
One notable stop will be at the legendary Sarah Tyson Rorer restaurant space, which was located at the East Pavilion on Art Hill. Recognized as “the nation's instructress of dietetics and cookery,” Rorer wrote 54 cookbooks, a domestic science column for the Ladies Home Journal, and sold her World’s Fair Souvenir Cook Book in St. Louis. Her café and cooking classes became highlights of the fair, Vaccaro says. “She was more popular than Julia Child,” Heidrich notes. Hale adds that even Child must have been inspired by Rorer’s healthy, simple and fresh approach to cooking.
The tour will return to The Restaurant at The Cheshire for the World’s Fair Dinner. Based off of authentic high-end restaurant menus from the 1904 World’s Fair, the savory, multi-course meal will begin with sliced tomatoes and clear mock green turtle soup, followed by main courses of fillet of sea bass meuniere, with cucumber salad and new potatoes, and a relish tray of celery, olives, and radishes. Next, an impressive dish of saddle of spring lamb jardinière will be served, along with asparagus Hollandaise, golden plover with hearts of lettuce, and Roman punch. Decadent desserts, including ice cream and camembert, as well as coffee, will cap off the elaborate meal.
Last year, when Vaccaro, who also is a native St. Louisan and professional speaker, and Heidrich began to collaborate on the idea of a World’s Fair culinary tour, they knew just the chef for the job: Hale, an acclaimed culinary master and history buff. The seasoned chef says he was immediately intrigued by the thought of re-creating recipes from 100 years ago. “The World’s Fair and its food are such a big deal—and never talked about,” he notes.
When Hale recalls researching the fair’s restaurants and recipes, he lights up like a kid in a candy store. He explains that he used Rorer’s recipes, as well as the menu from the Tyrolean Alps Restaurant at the fair, as the inspiration for much of the re-creation supper. In her book, Vaccaro outlines the upscale German restaurant experience of the Tyrolean Alps, conceived by August Busch and the LPE Co., underwritten by German St. Louis stockholders and fleshed out by restaurant and catering industry experts, Tony Faust of St. Louis and August Luchow of New York. Reportedly modeled after a Bavarian royal palace, the elegant eatery where the upscale dined—even President Theodore Roosevelt—featured a 100-piece orchestra playing live classical music, European masterpieces hanging on the walls, and electric lighting suspended over a dining hall, as well as an outdoor veranda, with combined seating of more than 5,000.
While choosing fare for the dinner, Hale says the prevalence of fish dishes, relish trays and punch on exposition menus meant they had to be highlighted in the meal. “Chef Hale has put his own twist on everything,” Vaccaro says. And these are the types of recipes that everyone can do at home, Hale adds.
Vaccaro, Hale and Heidrich all agree that food brings people together, particularly when you’re talking about the 1904 exposition’s fare. So while our city may not have been the birthplace for many of the beloved culinary creations that became popularized at the fair, they still are certainly something to celebrate.
Courtesy of executive chef Rex Hale of The Restaurant at The Cheshire
• 1 bunch of asparagus (about 1 lb.)
• 10 T unsalted butter (1 stick, plus 2 T)
• 3 egg yolks
• 1 T lemon juice
• 1/2 t salt
• Pinch of cayenne
Prep the asparagus: Break off the tough ends with your fingers. Bend the asparagus spears near the end and they will break naturally where the spear is no longer tough. For an elegant presentation of the spears, use a vegetable peeler to peel off a very thin layer of the outer skin of the lower 2 to 3 inches of the asparagus spears. Prepare a large, shallow pan (with a cover) with a half-inch of water and a steamer rack.
Prepare the Hollandaise sauce: Melt the butter in a small pot. Put the egg yolks, lemon juice, salt and cayenne into a blender. Blend the eggs for 20 to 30 seconds at medium speed until lighter in color. Turn blender down to lowest setting and slowly drizzle in the hot, melted butter while the blender is going. Continue to blend for a few seconds after all of the butter is incorporated. Taste the sauce; add more salt or lemon juice, if needed. Keep warm while you are steaming the asparagus.
Bring the water in your steaming pan to a boil. Place the asparagus on the steaming rack. Cover. Steam for 3 to 5 minutes, until tender, but still a little crisp. The timing depends on the thickness of the asparagus spears.
Plate the asparagus. Pour Hollandaise sauce over them.
Sea Bass Meuniere
• 1/2 c all-purpose flour
• 2 sea bass fillets (4 ounces)
• Coarse kosher salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 2 T vegetable oil or canola oil
• 2 T (1/4 stick) unsalted butter
• 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
• 2 T chopped fresh Italian parsley
• 1 T fresh lemon juice
Place flour in pie dish. Rinse fish; pat with paper towels. Sprinkle both sides of fish with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Dredge fish on both sides with flour; shake off excess. Place on platter.
Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until oil is hot and shimmers. Add butter; quickly swirl skillet to coat. When foam subsides, add fish and cook until golden on bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully turn over fish and cook until opaque in center and golden on bottom, 3 to 4 minutes.
Divide fish between two warmed plates. Pour off drippings from skillet; wipe with paper towels.
Place skillet over medium-high heat. Add butter; cook until golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in parsley and lemon juice (sauce may sputter). Spoon sauce over fish.