Eating Like a Frenchman at the New York World’s Fair

We chatted with the New York Public Library to find out more about this 1939 World’s Fair photo.

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Grover Whalen carving meat at the opening of the a World’s Fair restaurant, Brass Rail. Photo credit: New York Public Library

You may have heard that the New York Public library just made 180,000 images available for public use — thanks guys! It’s an incredible online rabbithole, perfect for people with boring desk jobs. Backstage photos of Broadway musicals, illustrations of Norwegian nobility, pictures of goats. You want it, they probably got it.

For our upcoming Drinks issue, we’re diving deep into one booze-related image from the collection, giving it historical context and having some fun in the process. Which image? Well, you’ll just have to pick up a copy of the mag (on streets mid-February). My only hint — it’s a photo from the 1939 World’s Fair.

To glean information, we talked to the eminently helpful Thomas Lannon, manuscripts and archives curator at NYPL. In the process of learning about our chosen photo, we covered a lot of ground about the World’s Fair, it’s dining options and its celebration of industrial food.

Here is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for flow and clarity:

Edible Brooklyn: There were many food options at the fair, correct?
Thomas Lannon: Yes, there was a big area with many options for eating and drinking. There was a restaurant sponsored by Heineken with a big windmill. There was a very large beer hall. There was a place called Old New York that was like a fake re-creation of a restaurant from the 1890s.

EB: Culinary historians have written a lot about changes the fair brought to American dining. Can you talk about that?
TL: Well you’ve certainly heard about how it was a big moment for French cuisine in the U.S. There were so many options at the fair — it was a time when regular, working-class people were first introduced to cuisine from around the world. Now it wasn’t just people from the Upper East Side who could eat French food; people from Queens or Long Island could get in on it too. It wasn’t just France either — there was food from Argentina, Sweden, you name it. William Grimes has written some interesting stuff about that.

EB: So everyone got to try some fancy food.
TL: Well they also sold 15 million hot dogs and 15 million hamburgers in the two years it was open. So not everything was highbrow.

EB: What about food education exhibits?
TL: There was a whole separate section called Food Zone that celebrated things like industrial bread and condensed milk. We were very proud of how America was producing things faster and better then ever before; we celebrated things we would not celebrate today. There was a big Heinz dome (they gave away pickle pins). There was a big Borden milk building, where you could see cows get milked. Even American Tobacco and General Cigar sponsored parts of the Food Zone — that should tell you something.

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Jesse Hirsch

Formerly the print editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, Jesse Hirsch now works as the New York editor for GOOD magazine.