Food at the Fair: San Francisco’s Introduction to Chowmein and Chop Suey

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panama pacific expo

The year 1906 was a bad one for San Francisco. The earthquake and resulting conflagration happened on April 18, destroying a half-century of homes and businesses. The only local cookbook to come out that year was The Refugee’s Cookbook, which instructed now-homeless San Franciscans how to cook outdoors, now that they resided in tents in the parks around town. The owners of the decimated Swan’s Oyster Depot gave out free sacks of flour in Golden Gate Park, with a table sign that read, “Remember Us.” (When they finally reopened, people did).

By contrast, 1915 was a banner year for the City. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition opened on February 20, to pomp, cheer, and colored beams of light. It stretched across the Marina, from the Palace of Fine Arts (the only building still standing from the fair) to Fort Mason, with buildings celebrating horticulture, world history, art, and food. San Francisco was finally celebrating its comeback, bringing newcomers from around the world to take in the sights, smells, and tastes of a city on the rebound. After a young Ansel Adams and his father visited the fair, his father declared that Ansel would take the rest of the school year off and instead attend the fair every day, knowing his education that year couldn’t be rivaled by what he would learn there.

I once interviewed an elderly gentleman who had attended the fair as a teenager. He grew up miles away, in the Sunset. One day, he and a friend found themselves at the end of the day with just a few cents left in their pockets. Their choice was to either take the tram home, or indulge in the fair’s famous strawberry shortcakes. Did they hesitate? Let’s just say they had ample opportunity to walk off those calories on the way home.

Foods from around the world were introduced to Americans for the first time at the fair, including Chinese American cuisine. It goes without saying that Chinese food was plentiful in Chinatown, and had been for many years, but most white San Franciscans were afraid to go there. It had a reputation for crime, opium, and vermin, and the language and food were both foreign. At the fair, thousands of residents sampled chow mein and chop suey for the first time, and fell in love with it. They toughened up and began braving the trip to Chinatown, at the same time that the neighborhood was rebuilding from the earthquake. Some smart Chinatown planners realized that if they built buildings with stereotypical Chinese architectural flourishes, it would bring more tourists, and the area quickly revived. No longer sequestered to cramped alleys, the Chinese living in San Francisco finally felt like equal citizens.

The Palace of Food Products was one of the most visited at the fair, as it not only contained exhibits of food products from around the world (and how they were made and brought to market), but was also replete with restaurants serving food from all nations. Each restaurant within the palace doubled as a product display: the Chinese restaurant exhibited varieties of tea, while coffee could be sampled at the Porto Rico Coffee Parlor or the Guatemala Coffee Parlor. An entire working flour mill from Sperry, a local miller, was built within the Palace, and cooks from around the world “took the flour it made and baked it at electric stoves into the forms of bread peculiar to their respective countries.” Attendees could observe the entire flour milling process, and the bakers in the booth attracted fanatical attention. According to a then contemporary account by Frank Morton, “There was a Chinaman making sesmum, yuksum, olive and almond cakes, and a Mexican woman making tortillas, and an old southern Mammy of the broadest and most unmistakable type making southern hoe cake from corn meal, and a ‘sourdough’ from Alaska baking himself the comestible from which he took his nickname. India was represented. You could get matzos and noodles and Japanese sen pei, and Russian peroskey…Through having to use it, the Chinese chef became in time convinced that good noodles could really be made from fine white California flour instead of the dark stuff from which Chinese noodles had been made for so many years, and he so convinced his astonished countrymen. It widened the use of California flour, and new orders came from Hong Kong on this account.”

A display in the canning section showed off the 57 varieties of Heinz condiments in a pyramid of bottles, with films in the background of fields of tomato-pickers and canning operations. Joseph C. Lehrner was given space to display his incredible collection of historic menus from famous dinners for everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Robert E. Lee. An entire hunter’s camp was reproduced, with taxidermied game hung about and cooking equipment surrounding faux campfires. Twelve large aquarium tanks were filled with varieties of grown salmon, oysters, crabs, clams, and game fish. And the entire wine industry of California was displayed at the California Viticultural Exhibit, the largest ever under one roof. Don’t you wish you could’ve been there?

The lone cookbook to emerge from the fair, The Pan-Pacific Cook Book: Savory Bits from the World’s Fare by John McLaren, contains recipes from across the globe, and is the perfect memorial to the exposition. The world came to San Francisco, and the food connected visitors to every culture imaginable, most for the first time in their lives. A great city was reborn.