When State Fair food was real
Ah, the Illinois State Fair – the highlight of my childhood summers. From about the third grade on, I sold produce from my grandparents’ organic farm from a makeshift stand at the end of our driveway. Every year I hoarded those earnings, my allowance and babysitting money, then blew it all on a gloriously uninhibited fair week.
Fair-going is nostalgic for me. There’s so much that triggers memories: horse shows at the Coliseum; the butter cow; the smells, sights and sounds of the animal barns; even structures such as the Exhibition Building, the Grandstand, and the 11th Street entrance gate.
Much has changed, too. The carnival lost a lot of its slightly sleazy romance when it moved out of Sleepy Hollow. Conservation World has been a nice addition. It seems as if there are far fewer booths marketing new products and far more with junky souvenirs.
The most dramatic change is fair food. Sure, there are constants such as lemonade shake-ups, corn dogs, honey ice cream, saltwater taffy, cotton candy and wonderful Culler’s French fries. But before elephant ears, shrimp on a stick, deep-fried candy bars and other unwholesome treats arrived on the scene, most fair food – especially anything remotely resembling a main course or meal – was consumed at stands run by civic organizations, churches and even families. There were also commercial food operations that traveled the fair circuit, of course. Some had coils of sausage and heaps of peppers and onions on griddles in their front windows that sent out wonderful aromas. But the men who ran them always seemed vaguely sinister; and my folks regarded them, the food they served, and their obviously dubious levels of hygiene with deep suspicion. We stuck to the locals.
It was no hardship. A North End family ran a place across from the grandstand. Serving such American-Italian classics as spaghetti and meatballs, homemade ravioli and garlic bread, it was the lone ethnic eatery on the fairgrounds. None of the others had anything even remotely spicy or exotic. No, what these places offered was something that’s almost disappeared today: pure, unadulterated, unprocessed, unprepackaged, made-from-scratch Midwestern comfort food.
The Chatham (now United) Methodist Church’s stand was one of the most popular. Like many others, it was a permanent open-air structure. For decades the same menu was served at a counter that ran around three sides of the stand: beef and noodles, barbecue sandwiches, slaw, baked beans and a huge assortment of pies, including such rarely seen varieties such as gooseberry and apricot, my favorite. Everything was freshly made in the church’s basement kitchen, including the pies, and then taken to the fair, the hot items transported in electric roasters that maintained safe temperatures during the trip. The noodles were handmade by the Methodist Men’s Group weeks before and spread out to dry in specially designed mesh frameworks. Virtually the entire congregation was involved. It was a tremendous endeavor and a profitable one that financed a new education wing and sanctuary. Even now, those involved have a touch of awe in their voices when they recall those times.
“We used a ton of cabbage every year – I mean literally 2,000 pounds,” says Marilyn Markus. “Can you imagine how much slaw that is? At peak times and when the political trains came down from Chicago, we’d have people waiting three and four deep behind each person sitting at the counter. Folks would stand for over an hour to sit down and eat.”
Fellow church member Phyllis Summers not only worked at the Chatham Methodist stand but also at the Home Bureau stand, which offered a menu similar to the church’s (chicken and noodles instead of beef and noodles). She also volunteered at her children’s 4-H stand.
It was lots of work but also lots of fun, or at least it was for my buddies and me. During my teenage years, I was in the thick of it all. Even though my family belonged to a Springfield church, I’d nagged my parents into switching to Chatham Methodist because so many of my friends from school went there. We could hardly wait until we were old enough to work at the fair stand. We weren’t paid and weren’t supposed to keep any tips, but it couldn’t have mattered less. By then my friends and I had figured out which were the prime shifts and jockeyed among ourselves to sign up for them. The trick was to work with friends, while avoiding shifts managed by those adults we regarded as being overly strict and cantankerous – and who I now realize were undoubtedly that way because of having to keep a bunch of teenagers on task. There was also potential for romance: working the same shift with a boy or girl on whom someone had a crush could be an effective catalyst. Not only was there the close proximity and camaraderie of the stand, but also the opportunity to oh, so casually, suggest going to hear one of the rock bands, ride some rides, or just wander around together when the shift ended.
Ironically, it was an onslaught of food-safety regulations that drove local food purveyors from the fair while somehow not affecting the commercial greasy spoons. Beginning in the late ’60s, each year brought new restrictions and requirements. Suddenly only stainless-steel equipment could be used, which, for Chatham Methodist (and others), meant replacing a fleet of enameled roasters. Then plumbing regulations changed. The death knell was the requirement that all food be prepared on the premises. By the early ’70s, local noncommercial food stands had virtually disappeared.
There are good eats at today’s fairs — especially since the Ethnic Village appeared — and hopefully all those regulations make commercial fair circuit eateries a safer bet than they used to be, but it saddens me that what we think of as Illinois State Fair food is now the same (mostly junk) food found in every other fair in the country, that we’ve lost the food stands and their community of volunteers that were a big part of what made our state fair uniquely the Illinois State Fair.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This caramel corn is simple and simply delicious. Dark corn syrup and vanilla make most traditional; using maple syrup and flavoring is a nice variation. Adding just peanuts makes it “Cracker Jack.” Using other nuts, singly or in combination, creates a more sophisticated version.
- 3-4 quarts freshly popped, unseasoned popcorn
- 3 c. roasted nuts: peanuts, cashews, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc., either singly or in combination, optional (Use the smaller amount – 3 qts. – of popcorn if adding nuts.)
- 1/2 c. unsalted butter
- 1 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar
- 1/4 c. dark corn syrup or
- maple syrup
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. vanilla or maple extract
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Spread the popcorn in a large shallow pan. Mix in the nuts if using. Spray a large cooking spoon or spatula with cooking spray, or rub it with softened butter and set aside.
In a large saucepan melt the butter, then add the brown sugar, syrup and salt. Over high heat, bring to a boil, stirring constantly (with a spoon/spatula other than the sprayed one).
Reduce the heat to low and WITHOUT STIRRING, cook for 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and baking soda. The mixture will foam up. When the foaming subsides, pour the mixture over the popcorn (and nuts) tossing with the sprayed spoon until everything is coated.
Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let stand just until it’s cool enough to handle, then break into pieces. Don’t let the caramel corn cool completely, or it will be difficult to get out of the pan.