Man of Many Miles

St. Louis: Birthplace of Fast Food


More than any other spot on earth, St. Louis is the birthplace of fast food.

In terms of speed and convenience, St. Louis has made the single biggest impact on your gastrointestinal tract since cave people first burned meat, more than White Castle or pizza jockeys or Cap’n Crunch or Dairy Queen, even more than McDonald’s.

Oh, argue if you want. You can point to ancient Romans who popped into a popina to get quickie servings of wine, food and other earthly delights. You can nod to the Earl of Sandwich, whose namesake innovation loafed in obscurity until more than a century after his death. You can thank the ancient Turks who stuffed the portable pita.

And of course, we owe a debt of gratitude to the ancient Mayans who invented the tortilla, which eventually encouraged Americans to think outside the bun.

All these primitive packages–the taco, the pita, the sandwich–evolved into menus offering 1.2 billion choices for instant grab-and-go gastro gratification. And while most of the following examples have a thousand fathers, St. Louis is secure as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the fast food world. Nowhere in history did so many shortcuts to food foist themselves on the world at the same time in the same spot. Forest Park is the grandmother of modern convenience, the birthplace of fast food.

I have compelling evidence.

Some historian will point out that the hot dog was created at Coney Island, not in St. Louis. Likely it was neither, since Germans have been eating bread-wrapped daschund sausages for centuries. No matter. The importance of the hot dog sizzled with the introduction of the hot dog in a bun. Some say that unique bread package was introduced by a German at the St. Louis World’s Fair. But a decade earlier, a German who owned the St. Louis Browns baseball team began the tradition of ball park hot dogs. The sausage gets top billing, but if you’re talking portability, the bun is the star. Fast food.

Still skeptical? Try this experiment: Boil some tea. Now, drink it fast. Horrors, think proper Victorians, who know that sipping hot tea is a time-honored royal ritual that shouldn’t be rushed. So when somebody dropped ice cubes into tea, it stirred a revolution as habit forming as any tea party. This time around, the guilty party emanated from the 1904 Louisiana Exposition, and iced tea took the world by a storm that’s still brewing.

There’s a pattern here. St. Louis didn’t invent the food. They just made it easier to eat. Portable. Fast. Efficient.

Whole wheat had been around since before cultivation. But when a Kansas farmer developed a way to keep whole wheat from turning rancid, a St. Louis entrepreneur named William Danforth packaged it as Ralston Whole Wheat Cereal, and sold it in St. Louis grocery stores.

Give up the argument that the happy meal was created by a Kansas City ad agency. The idea was envisioned by a St. Louis restauranteur. Such recent innovation only pays homage to the beginning of fast food more than a hundred years ago in St. Louis.

Oh, everybody plays a part. For example, Chillicothe should be proud of the world’s first commercial bread slicer. But it was a St. Louis invention–a collapsible bread tray–that kept bread slices together until they could be wrapped.

Ravioli existed before the 1904 World’s Fair. But toasting ravioli at the fair made it easier to carry them in your pocket.

No, the St. Louis World’s Fair didn’t debut the TV dinner, or the radio dinner either, since there were no TVs or radios in 1904. But technically TV dinners are not fast food anyway, since they must be cooked in your oven, and eaten on a folding metal tray, and not in your car.

You think you had problems with M&Ms. Think about holding ice cream in your palms. The 1904 World’s Fair came to the rescue, and voila…the cone. It seems so simple. Ice cream got a geometric boost into the fast food era. Never mind that somebody has recently found a two-century-old engraving of a woman eating what looks like ice cream in a cone. And yes, a guy patented a cone mold in 1903, and an earlier London cookbook told about putting ice cream in a wafer cone. No matter. The cone came into its own during the St. Louis fair.

The implications boggle the mind. The 1904 Louisiana Exposition popularized peanut butter, first patented in 1895 by John Harvey Kellogg. This led, eventually, to the phenomenon we know as Elvis. Just as important, the portability of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich launched a resurgence in the carpet cleaning industry.

The same fair claims credit for introducing Dr. Pepper, cotton candy and the Hamburg steak in a bun. You call it a hamburger. The invention of the hamburger gets many claims, from Texas to New Haven to Hamburg, New York. But the world learned of the portable standard from its Forest Park debut.

Clarence Birdseye, the father of frozen fish, was born on the East Coast. But St. Louisan Harry Hussmann provided Birdseye the first frozen food case, shortly after the St. Louis World’s Fair. Three decades later, Hussmann scored again on the convenience meter, providing shoppers with the first self-service frozen food display case, and the first self-serve display cases for meat, dairy and produce. These frozen food cases were the vehicles that launched the chilling invasion of pot pies and frozen pizzas.

About the same time, Pet Milk Company, the St. Louis creator of Our Pet Evaporated Cream, began irradiating evaporated milk to kill germs, long before the process became common in the food industry.

Pets of every stripe have always had a support system in St. Louis, provided by another fast food industry. The folks at St. Louis-based Purina didn’t invent dog food. But cat chow, yes, and an ark full of other chows, too, including that happy meal for young dogs, Puppy Chow.

The city introduced soft drinks named Vess and Howdy and Seven Up, Provel cheese, prosperity sandwiches, gooey butter cake, and the precursor to Dairy Queen’s blizzard–the concrete. The pop bottle cap was born in neighboring St. Charles. In honor of this rich heritage, Hardee’s moved its headquarters to St. Louis in 2001. Well, maybe that’s not why Hardee’s chose St. Louis. But they’re here.

And in case there’s any doubt about the capital of fast food, St. Louis gave the world a taste of the fastest food ever in 1947. That’s when St. Louis-based Trans World Airlines developed and introduced quick-frozen pre-cooked meals for in-flight dining. TWA was also the first airline to provide fresh-brewed coffee in flight, in 1957.

Some folks think fast food is one of the signs that civilization is nearing the end. If this is the case, don’t blame St. Louis. After all, the city had nothing to do with inventing Twinkies, Tofurkey or Turducken, best I can tell, or the corn dog, for that matter, which evolved during the 1940s in Illinois or Minnesota or Texas, depending on who’s telling the history of this battered pig on a stick.

If that’s too much heartburn for you, wash down a Tums, a 1928 St. Louis invention.

And one nod to the original fast food got some air time at the St. Louis World’s Fair during a speech by J.T. Stinson, who first uttered that famous phrase you can still hear in your mother’s own voice:

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

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