top of page


(Originally published in the July 2001 issue of Where Calgary magazine)

By John Geary

"The west wasn't won on a salad."

That sentiment, expressed on billboards during a 1990 North Dakota Beef Council ad campaign, could easily apply anywhere throughout the west, north or south of the 49 Parallel.

It certainly applies to eating at the Calgary Stampede. While healthy, alternative foods are more available in greater variety than they were five years ago, (see sidebar, "Big Four Offers Fresh Alternatives") people still like to chow down on beef and beans at the world's biggest rodeo.

"People's eating habits are changing, but during the 10 days of Stampede they let loose," says Derek Dale, executive chef for the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede catering department. 

"I think the Stampede brings out that desire for popcorn, cotton candy, mini-donuts, and the greasy fries, in everyone.

"For example, food critic John Gilchrist has his annual corn dog every Stampede."

Foods like nachos, popcorn, and fries are really midway side dishes, though. Meat is still king of the food hill at Stampede.

"Not too many people go to Stampede and look for tofu," says Mike Mitchell, the meat specialist for Bridge Brand Food Services, the food supplier to the Stampede catering department and individual concessionaires. "They want meat, in particular, beef.

"Last year we sold 308,396 hot dogs (including 134,600 corn dogs) at the Stampede," says Mitchell. "I think this year we'll sell more."

That figure does not include "smokies," of which they sold more than 20,000 in 2000. They also sold 22,410 pounds of burgers and 30,000 pounds of beef roasts, ribs and steaks.

Add to that 400 to 500 gallons of beans, and you've got more food than many old cowboys would have seen in a lifetime of trail drives.

Dale echoes Mitchell's sentiment about people liking their meat and other sides during the Stampede.

"Quiche and salad just wouldn't work," the chef says. "I don't think you'll ever get rid of junk food at the Stampede."

Not all fairground fare is junk food. While most of the food available at midway concessions - hot dogs, corn dogs, cotton candy, candied apples, and popcorn - fall into that category, food barbecued at Stampede events does not.

"We cook lots of prime rib, barbecued beef ribs, beef on a bun, tons of steaks, baby-back ribs, we've even cooked a suckling pig during Stampede," says Dale. "It all depends on what a particular client wants."

All of this cooking requires 45 chefs cooking for upwards of 800 people at a time.

Away from the Stampede grounds, breakfasts are one of the most popular Stampede events. They are so popular that the original committee in charge of running them had to split into two committees: one for the downtown area, another to run them at the city's malls and shopping centres.

The committee started running breakfasts 23 years ago, but these morning food fests began much earlier than that.

The tradition of Stampede breakfasts started during the 1922 Stampede. A young chuck wagon driver named Jack Morton could not afford to pay for a hotel, so he resorted to camping at the CPR train station in downtown Calgary. One morning while Morton and several cowboy friends were sharing breakfast, they started inviting passers-by to pull up a plate and join them.

Thus was born a tradition that continues to thrive today.

"Just like in the old west, we like to serve the pancakes, the beans and the bacon off the backs of wagons," says Rob Laidlaw, chairman of the downtown attractions committee. "It's been an integral part of the Stampede for an awful long time."

The breakfasts continue to be one of the most popular aspects of the Stampede.

"At Rope Square alone, more than 300 volunteers are required to serve 3,000 to 4,000 people a day," says Laidlaw.

Like everything else about the Stampede, participation in the breakfasts has grown enormously in the past 23 years.

"The first year the committee ran breakfasts, in 1977, we served 23,000 breakfasts during Stampede," says Sandy Durrant, who chairs the Caravan committee. "Now we serve about 25,000 on the Family Fun Day alone."

The Caravan committee runs the mall breakfasts, events unto themselves, that provide much more than bacon, flapjacks and coffee.

"We have entertainers with the Stampede Stages, hay rides and pony rides, marching bands, clowns, Native dancers, trick ropers, a petting zoo and the Stampede queen and princesses at

our breakfasts," says Durrant.

Not all breakfasts run as part of the Caravan. For example, the Chinook Centre Mall runs its own breakfast. Last year, it set a Guinness Book of World Records mark for the world's biggest cooked breakfast, dishing up pancakes, ham and baked beans to 8,337 people within a one-hour span.

That breakfast required included 3,330 pounds of pancake mix, 2,000 pounds of ham, 670 gallons of orange juice, 90 gallons of maple syrup, 6,300 pounds of baked beans and 45 pounds of ground coffee. More than 100 cooks mixed, grilled, baked and boiled the food.


While many Stampede visitors feast on hamburgers, hot dogs, beef-on-a-bun and beans, those with different food tastes will not go home hungry.

The Big Four Building offers some alternative eating options.

"We're trying to offer 'fresh garden market' types of foods," says Derek Dale, executive chef of the Calgary Stampede catering department, "foods like fresh fruit cups and fresh vegetables."

Dale says many of the other foods traditionally served in that building - Chinese food, burgers, corn dogs, etc. - were also available outside on the fairgrounds, so the Stampede Park decided to try a different concept in the Big Four.

"We've had really good success with the food there."

Cynthia de Boer, the catering sales co-coordinator for the Stampede, says people still love the midway junk food and they love to eat beef during the Stampede. Increasing numbers of people are looking for alternatives, though.

"We're getting more and more requests for vegetarian-type foods," she says. "And while many people are happy to eat junk food during Stampede, there are a many people who have allergies, and their diets never change.

"There are more people who do require special meals, so that's getting to be a bigger and bigger trend."

When de Boer first started, she says they might have 10 or 15 special meal requirements for the all of the events the department catered.

"Now, for every event, you get between 20 and 40 people who have a special menu requirement, and almost always at least one person per event."Just five or six years ago, it was nowhere near that number."

De Boer says she thinks that trend toward eating healthier food at the Stampede will continue to increase in the next five years.

"Absolutely, without a doubt. I think many of the menus we see now will have a lot less seasoning and fewer intricacies involved in cooking them.

"I think we're really going to get back to very basic foods, that aren't loaded with dairy products or exotic spices, especially with the numbers of allergies we're seeing."

- JG


It's chewy, gooey, spicy, salty, slurpy, yummy and definitely not fat-free. And much of our North American fairground good originated in the Old World.

Hamburgers: Tartar horsemen would cut a fillet from a conquered cow, place it under their saddle while they continued to plunder, or so legend states. By dinnertime, the steak was tenderized. They ate it raw, in the earliest version of Steak Tartare.

Eventually this delicacy spread across Europe. In Hamburg, someone enhanced its flavor by cooking it. In the 19 century, Hamburg was the departure point for German emigrants to North America. They brought "hamburger steak" across the Atlantic. Its popularity hit warp-speed when served during the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

Hot dogs: We owe Germany thanks for the hot dog, as well.

The modern wiener is descended from a spiced sausage developed in Frankfurt. Supposedly named "dachshund sausages" in tribute to a Frankfurt butcher's popular pet, "frankfurters" were served with sauerkraut and mustard but no buns. In the 1890s, a German immigrant began selling them in buns in Coney Island, New York.

Like the hamburger, its popularity increased exponentially when served at the 1904 World's Fair.

The name "hot dog" supposedly began when New York cartoonist Tad Dorgan drew a picture of vendor Harry Stevens selling the "hot dachshund sausages" during a baseball game, shouting "Get your red-hot dachshund sausages!" Dorgan included the caption "Get your hot dogs!" However, no one has ever found a copy of the cartoon.

Corn Dogs: According to legend, brothers Carl and Neil Fletcher were responsible for the first corn dogs. In 1938, they were offered a booth at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. They had seen a Dallas street vendor selling hot dogs coated in cornmeal batter, baked in molds shaped like ears of corn. They modified that, putting the wieners on sticks, dipping them in batter and deep-frying them.

Pretzels: Legend tells us a seventh-century French or Italian monk baked the first pretzel by twisting scraps of bread dough into shapes resembling arms crossed in prayer. A pretiola, Latin for a "little reward," became a treat for children who said their prayers properly. In Germany, it became known as a pretzel.

Hard pretzels were born when a baker fell asleep with a batch in the oven. When he awoke, his pretzels were toasted golden brown with a crisp texture and nutlike flavor.

Like hot dogs and hamburgers, pretzels came across the Atlantic with German immigrants.

Popcorn: This is one snack that did not originate in Germany. Popcorn was supposedly a surprise gift from the Native Americans to the Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621.

- JG

bottom of page