Photograph by Mardis Coers, Moment Mobile, Getty Images
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Fair foods like hot dogs, here lit up at a stand at the California State Fair in 2005, don't always have the origins we think they do.
Photograph by Mardis Coers, Moment Mobile, Getty Images
The Plate

5 Weird Food Facts from World’s Fairs Past

World’s Fairs, like the one going on now in Milan, are places to show off new technology and ideas for the future. (Check out our series on food at the Milan Expo). They’re also places where hundreds of thousands of people need to eat in a hurry, often while walking. So while the last 150 years of global expositions have filled countless brains with visions of the future yet to be realized, world’s fairs have also filled stomachs.

Here are some interesting food-related “facts” about various expos, and the truth behind them:

1. The 1958 Expo in Brussels was shaped like a food source.

Like many of its predecessors, Expo 58 was a showcase for cutting-edge architecture and technology. Its centerpiece was the Atomium, a futuristic sculpture/building shaped like an iron crystal, heralding the atomic age.

But from overhead, the expo grounds looked like something much lower-tech—a cow. Specifically, a beefy Belgian blue cow (see National Geographic Channel’s video on Super Cow Creators.

World’s Fair scholars have speculated about the significance of where various pavilions were placed in the cow’s anatomy; the Atomium is in the heart, Western Europe is in the brain. To see for yourself, here’s an overview of the shape from the Atomium website, and here’s an interactive map of the exhibit where you can overlay the outline of the cow. 

2. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair put the BR in PBR—kind of.

The Pabst Brewing Company claims its flagship beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, won that titular blue ribbon after being named the world’s best beer at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. But the beer—then called Pabst Best Select—had a blue ribbon on its package before the fair. It was a literal blue ribbon, tied around the beer, celebrating the many previous awards Pabst had won.

How exactly the 1893 beer competition went down is a point of contention. Pabst did indeed win a beer contest in Chicago’s White City, but some accounts say all high-scoring beers got the same prize—and it was a medal, not a blue ribbon.

Either way, Pabst changed the name of Best Select after the fair. And, as The Onion saysas The Onion saysas The Onion says, they’ve been celebrating ever since. (Yes, we know The Onion is a satirical publication.)

3. Belgian waffles made their American debut at a world’s fair, and we’ve been getting them wrong ever since.

The thick, crispy stacks of carbs Americans call Belgian waffles are called Brussels waffles in their native country, which has several varieties of waffles, each named after their geographic origin and not necessarily served for breakfast.

The renamed Belgian waffles took off in the U.S. after the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, but they debuted two years earlier on a different coast. Under the wonderful headline “Waffles Different,” a Spokane newspaper described the Brussels waffles for sale in the shadow of the Space Needle.

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A girl enjoys a Belgian waffle at the New York World’s Fair, 1964. Photograph by James P. Blair/National Geographic/Getty Images

A recent episode of the Sporkful Podcast features members of the family that sold waffles at the 1964 fair. They reveal that the recipe has been misinterpreted to the point where Belgian waffles don’t taste very Belgian. Authentic Brussels waffles are nothing like the waffle-shaped pancakes sold stateside today. Recipes for the real thing include yeast and, sometimes, club soda. There’s one family in America with the original recipe, but some newcomers are apparently upping the U.S.’s waffle game, too.

4. Many of the foods invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis weren’t.

A meal of the dishes that allegedly debuted at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis would be a high-calorie feast. The fair supposedly saw the invention of hot dogs, ice cream cones, cotton candy, iced tea, hamburgers, and a few others. (I grew up in the St. Louis area, and it was nearly impossible to have one of these foods without someone claiming local heritage, and then someone else disputing it.)

Though the foods were all sold at the fair, and many were popularized there, there’s no shortage of evidence debunking all of the invention stories.

5. But … there were many dogs killed at the St. Louis fair.

Just as fairs have been showcases for intellect and ingenuity, they’ve also been used to display imperialism.

In 1904, the United States had just recently taken control of the Phillipines, having essentially won it in the Spanish-American War. With a growing empire, an impending Olympics, and the need to show off, the United States put its new lands on full display.

The St. Louis Exposition (timed, but then tardy, to coincide with the centennial of another major U.S. expansion—the Louisiana Purchase) dedicated nearly 50 acres to replicating villages from various Philippine ethnic groups. And the replicas were populated by Philippine natives.

“The Filipinos were shown at their various stages of cultures, from the primitive to the highly cultured, such as one may find in many big cities of the world,” writes Virgilio R. Pilapil in the Journal of Filipino American National History Society. “Their homes at the Fair were built exactly as they were in the Philippines in a setting that simulated their traditional environment.”

For the Igorot people, part of the reenactment included eating dog meat. The granddaughter of one of the Igorots on display at the fair told NPR that slaughtering and eating dog was a rare, ceremonial experience. But the city itself provided dogs for daily consumption and spectacle.

To this day, rumors persist that the St. Louis neighborhood of Dogtown was named that after the fair. But, St. Louis historians say the name existed before the fair, so the story is likely just as accurate as the ones about hot dogs and ice cream being invented in St. Louis.

Gabe Bullard is a senior producer at National Geographic. He’s also on Twitter. His favorite World’s Fair is Knoxville, 1982.