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If any city can claim to be the capital of the Fast Food Nation, it's St Louis. In a single year, the low-key midwestern metropolis gave America a slew of delicious, if devilish, treats: peanut butter, the hot dog, Dr Pepper, iced tea, cotton candy and even crunchy ice cream cones.
Each of them made their debut -- at least, in the national arena - during the 1904 World's Fair, staged in St Louis's Forest Park as a centenary celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. Compared with rival Chicago's fair 11 years before, which had focused on pomp and ceremony, this was about mass marketing and shopping (one exhibition showed the time-saving tricks of cooking with the innovation known as electricity). This fair was focused on everyday innovations, so it was natural that inventiveness should stretch into food, too.
That's one of the reasons St Louis became a junk food nursery. "There was a boom in product development in the late nineteenth century," notes Suzanne Corbett, local food historian and author of "Pushcarts and Stalls". It coincided with a shakeup in society. "Fast food became acceptable for all classes to eat and enjoy at the same time. That was the new social order: it was right to pick up things to carry and nosh along the way."
Much of the fast food launched in St Louis emerged from convenience (compare one-handed, car-friendly snacks like Go-gurt now). It didn't hurt that the new fast food wasn't only handy, but also cheap – a penny treat for the working class masses that thronged the fair's aisles. Take the cone: it was jury-rigged by a Syrian waffle vendor to allow fairgoers to stroll with their ice creams – gelato was already popular, thanks to St Louis's widespread Italian community. As for hot dogs, sausages portably and politely stashed in a bun, they emerged simultaneously for the same reason – that bun meant you didn't have to wear gloves to handle the food. Peanuts were a healthy treat of the era, but always tasted bland; it was the innovation of a St Louis doctor – whose name no one can now agree on – to roast the nuts before pureeing them and so give them a richer taste. Dr Pepper had debuted in Texas in 1885, but it took almost twenty years for its makers to have budget enough for a national rollout, via the World's Fair; likewise, cotton candy had been invented a few years earlier in Tennessee, but was launched splashily here. And though Southerners had been drinking sun-steeped ice tea for decades, the innovation here was to brew it hot then pour it over ice – an idea cooked up by Indian and Chinese tea producers miffed that no one was buying their hot beverages.
Delicious as these inventions were, there's more to St Louis's food than junky treats and its menus have been influenced by two key ethnic groups: those gelato–loving Italians, centered on the iconic nabe known as The Hill. And the Germans, who birthed to the city's unbreakable link with beer-brewing: everything in St Louis tastes better glugged down with an ice-cold, locally-made Budweiser.
But fittingly, given St Louis's love of indulgent treats, it's also the birthplace of Tum's. Though the brand is now owned by GlaxoSmithKline, the tablets were commercially introduced by St Louis boffin, Jim Howe, in 1930 who invented it to help his wife's heartburn. But who would have blamed her for overindulging on hot dogs, cotton candy and ice cream cones?