Gastronomic Tales from the Fair
The 1939 World’s Fair in New York might not seem like a dining destination, but for me it was. Ever since I saw The New York Public Library’s collection of menus from the Fair, I knew that a culinary story lay hidden somewhere off the beaten track — in the corners of the pavilions and exhibition halls, and in the meandering thoroughfares of Flushing Meadows — and the great treasure trove would be the Fair archives, a vast unknown that I hoped to transform into the somewhat known, as least as far as food goes.
It was a happy hunt. Riffling through the manila folders arranged in cardboard boxes, I quickly became aware of something that logic should have predicted. If you put on an event that will attract millions of visitors, you have to feed them. And in order to feed them, you have to set up restaurants, cafeterias, carts, and food stations.
The story behind this mass mess turned out to be fascinating. Documents, planning papers, and press releases shed light on how the Fair organizers conceived of the dining operation as a whole — the different types of food, price points, and venues that they envisioned, and the far-reaching decision to have each of the foreign pavilions operate its own restaurant.
Correspondence between the Fair’s organizers and potential vendors was a rich source of information on restaurants that were approved to operate at the Fair and, even better, those that failed to make the cut. I found myself drawn in by the also-rans, especially the grandiose schemes that live only in the Library archive but once simmered excitedly in the brains of would-be entrepreneurs.
One of the best was a culinary Tower of Babel, proposed by Jacques Gréber, a noted French architect. The idea was to build a tower with a different national restaurant on every floor. At the top, diners would gaze at far-off Manhattan, the lights of its famous skyline twinkling in the night sky. No go. The Fair’s organizers pointed out, quite reasonably, that every country would want to have the top floor, and each of the prima donna chefs would want his own kitchen.
Another disappointed hopeful was the Reverend J. M. Bartinger and his visionary Rail-O-Matic. This was an improved version of Bartinger’s Automatic Eater, a big hit at the 1920 Minnesota State Fair, where delighted patrons sat down at a long table and had their food delivered by 85 wooden cars linked together railroad-style and operated by a pulley.
Crosby Gaige, a noted bon vivant, proposed what I now think of as one of the greatest missed opportunities of the 20th century. Within the archives is a letter in which he outlines a brilliant idea that anticipates the missionary work of James Beard, Alice Waters, and other devotees of American food.
Why not, he asked, show the Fair’s many visitors the splendors of American cooking in a restaurant devoted to regional cuisines? Foreign visitors, unaware that Americans had their own food traditions, could be exposed to Maryland crab cakes, Louisiana gumbo, New England chowder, and San Francisco cioppino. Americans could benefit too, straying beyond their home grounds to sample classic dishes from parts of the country they might never travel to. To reinforce the lesson, a regional cookbook would be on sale near the exit.
Alas, for reasons unknown, the all-American feast never came to pass, although Gaige did assemble regional recipes in his New York World’s Fair Cookbook: The American Kitchen, which Doubleday published in 1939.
Somewhat less inspired was the proposal by Althea Lepper of New York, who wanted to operate a small restaurant that sold nothing but southern corn bread with bacon, ham, and maple syrup. “It would be my idea, too, to have a real southern Mammy as a cook and good Negro serving help,” she wrote.
Her proposal was rejected, and I assume, although I do not know for certain, that the poignant plea of Marie Hanc, wife of the Czechoslovak consul, also failed. Her letter, written behind her husband’s back, is one of the saddest documents in the archive, and a sharp reminder that the Fair that promised the World of Tomorrow sounded the last note of optimism in a very dark time.
Czechoslovakia had just been taken over by the Nazis, and Maria Hanc, stranded with her family in New York, was looking desperately for a way to survive. She hoped to operate a little sandwich stand at the Fair. She also hoped that her proposal would remain secret: “I am writing this letter without the knowledge of my husband and I ask you to keep it strictly confidential, so that my compatriots here would not suffer more humiliation.”
There were happy stories too, none more so than the assembling of the great French team that would open the simply named Restaurant Français at the French Pavilion. The archives, and a fascinating booklet in the Library’s holdings issued by the French government, Guide to the French Pavilion and to the France-Overseas Pavilion, set forth the lofty aims of a government lurching toward collapse but capable, when the honor of French cuisine was at stake, of heroism.
The French committed themselves to recreating, in Flushing Meadows of all places, a thoroughly authentic Parisian restaurant with authentically French food. With admirable efficiency, a committee of top restaurateurs was formed. They drafted the finest young chefs in their collective restaurants and offered them the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to bring their skills to New York and wave the flag of France.
They did, gloriously, led by a stout little martinet named Henri Soulé, who stayed on after World War II broke out and the Fair closed in 1940. He moved the Restaurant Français to Manhattan, where it was renamed Le Pavillon and became, without question, the city’s most important and influential French restaurant of the 20th century.
Like a glittering gem, the story of the Fair’s French restaurant lies buried in the archives, along with dozens of others still waiting to be unearthed. All its takes is a curious researcher with a pencil and a notebook.