Ah, the Illinois State Fair — the focal point of my childhood summers. Every year I hoarded my allowance money and income from various odd jobs, then blew it all on a gloriously uninhibited fair week.
Fair-going nowadays is in many ways a nostalgic experience. 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 (my perception couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my age). 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 (yuck!), 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 was consumed at stands run by civic organizations, churches, and even families. There were a few commercial food operations that traveled the fair circuit. 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 the counter that ran around three sides of the stand: beef and noodles, barbecue sandwiches, slaw, baked beans, and a huge assortment of pies, including some rarely seen varieties such as gooseberry and (my favorite) apricot. 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 Marcus. “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. By then we’d figured out which were the prime shifts and jockeyed among ourselves to sign up for them. We weren’t paid and weren’t supposed to keep any tips, but it couldn’t have mattered less.
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 disappeared.
There are good eats at today’s fairs — especially since the Ethnic Village appeared — and with any luck 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.
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.