Fairgoers hit the concession stands for unique fair food

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

The minute you pay your admission to the SEMO District Fair and walk toward the carnival midway, it hits you like a pie in the face. That wonderful smell of hot grease, cooking up all that wonderful, fried fair food.

Don't go looking for a green salad or an apple stand. Fair food is not healthy food. It just tastes good, and there's something about the atmosphere -- the lights, the noise, the excitement -- that makes it taste really good.

Fairgoers usually forget about low fat, high protein, and any kind of carb and indulge in corndogs, pizza, hamburgers, french fries, bratwurst, funnel cake, and even candy bars that are deep fried in enough hot oil to clog hundreds of miles of arteries.

In the early days, because transportation was so cumbersome, most fairgoers stayed all day and ate at the fair. Southeast Missourian archives show that prior to the turn of the 20th century, local lunchrooms ran concession stands, and many churches ran food stands selling regular lunch or dinner fare as a means of fundraising. Among the snack foods were peanuts, ice cream, popcorn and candy.

In 1904, according to a report from the Daily Republican, ladies who attended the fair could enjoy the many exhibits of "fancy work, stunning gowns, beautiful pictures, house furnishings, jewelry, pastries, fruits, vegetables and everything imaginable that appeals to the feminine heart."

And should the ladies feel a bit hungry after taking in all those exhibits, "a nice plate of homemade biscuits with creamery butter will be served free and can be eaten while listening to piano selections by a talented pianist and a piano player."

Young men were advised in the same issue that if they take their sweetheart to the fair, they can buy her a "red hot Coney Island Frankfurter" for a nickel. Or, he might spring for a "lemo" -- what they called lemonade at that time -- and stick candy.

Or if the young man were with his buddies that night, there were places to go where "young ladies dance and sing; and -- well, you know." That's where the beer was sold.

Those with bigger appetites, could go to the popular lunch stand which Meyer's Commercial bakery had on the ground. The ladies of the Cemetery Improvement Association served hot soup, sandwiches, ice cream and coffee in a booth raising money to improve and maintain Cape Girardeau's four cemeteries. And, according to the Oct. 12,1904 Daily Republican, "Miss Rose Uhl is the most popular young lady on the grounds. She is serving free coffee in the Bergmann-Bartel's display and is kept busy.

Dortha Strack of Cape Girardeau recalls when she was a youngster, most families brought a picnic lunch to the fair, and ate together as a family under the shade trees where the farmers market sets up every Wednesday during the summer. She recalled that her mother would make fried chicken to pack in the family's lunch.

Most families brought their own food, she said, because it was too expensive to buy food at the concession stands. Churches, schools, and organizations had -- and some still have -- concession stands to raise money for special projects. Strack said Trinity Lutheran Church originally had a breakfast stand for the people who stayed overnight with their livestock and for the carnival workers. Grace Methodist Church where she is a member has a fish stand. Strack said her stepfather would work at the concession stand run by the Jackson Optimist Club.

In the 1950s when she became involved as a 4-H leader, Strack said the young people in 4-H would sell dairy items from Bud Blattner's Sunny Hill Dairy -- ice cream, malts, milk -- and what they called "juicy burgers," or sloppy joes.

"We did not have fried stuff," she said. "The menu was very limited."

After several years the 4-H added soda, either fountain soda or in bottles, which they bought from a business known as Pop's where the VFW is now.

Eventually, the fair would see the entry of snow cones, cotton candy, ice cream on a stick, and different kinds of soft drinks.

From biscuits with creamery butter to funnel cakes dusted with powdered sugar, fair food has always been a special treat that just tastes better because it's at the fair.

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