A Chicago Buffet

Kraft Foods sponsored a conference in Chicago. This is the welcoming address.


Welcome to Chicago, the only major city named for a vegetable. Everyone knows us as ‘hog butcher to the world’ and the home of Al Capone, but to the Native Americans this was ‘the swamp of wild onions’: Checagou. And no one came up with a better name.

The French had their chance. In 1673, their explorers landed on these shores, and ignored them. This is the geographic hub of the Midwest, where the Great Lakes and the great rivers converge, but the French didn’t think it was worth a name. You’d expect Jesuits to be brighter.

By 1803, someone finally realized the value of this real estate. So, on behalf of Thomas Jefferson, I welcome you to Fort Dearborn, Illinois. No, the name did not last. The Native Americans did not appreciate the garrison, and the result is known as the Fort Dearborn massacre. Yet, the settlers kept coming, but they had a healthy superstition about the name Dearborn. In 1837, when this community of 4,000 people incorporated as a city, it was officially named Chicago.

Welcome to Wild Onion. This city lives up to its name. Chicago has verve, versatility and bite. Just consider the ideas and inventions that originated here: the skyscraper, the zipper, the Ferris Wheel, organized crime, nuclear fission and deep-dish pizza. In Chicago, we are sometimes shameless, always practical and never dull. This is a city with an appetite, and its primary business is food.

There are 8 million people in metropolitan Chicago, and the largest employer is the food products industry. Kraft International is in good company; Chicago is the headquarters for McDonald’s, Quaker Oats, Sara Lee and Dean Foods. This is also the candy capital of the world: the home to Tootsie Roll, E.J. Brach and Fanny May Candies. In Chicago, agriculture and industry have always converged. The food industry made this city.

Between the farms of the West and the factories of the East, Chicago was in the lucrative middle, the trading center of the nation. In 1848, a series of canals linked Chicago to the Mississippi River. As barges laden with grain arrived from the West, the Chicago Board of Trade provided a central market for commodities. By 1851, railroads connected Chicago to the East Coast. The rapid transportation opened a new market for Chicago: meat packing.

The grain trade and meat packing became the dominant industries of 19th century Chicago. They were the basis for the phenomenal growth of our city. In 1850, Chicago’s population was 29,000; in 1890, the total surpassed one million. This was the second largest city in the nation, and was fast approaching New York’s population. Indeed, New York City felt threatened. To maintain its number one status, New York arbitrarily annexed the city of Brooklyn.

Chicago was a boomtown. Marshall Field had been a store clerk in New England; he found Chicago had more opportunities. Gustav Swift was a butcher’s apprentice in Massachusetts; he did all right, too. A saloon-keeper named Mickey Finn became a legend; his customers always left a generous tip although they never remembered doing so.

With its boomtown mentality, Chicago was a ramshackle urban sprawl, unplanned and hastily built. It was an invitation to epidemics and fires. Both occurred with gruesome regularity, but one tragedy made history: the Great Chicago Fire. According to folklore and Hollywood, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow caused the fire by knocking over a lantern. Whatever the cause, the 1871 fire destroyed one third of the city.

The fire was a tragedy but not a setback. Chicago quickly rebuilt itself, although it now applied some principles of city-planning. The city aspired to culture, and could afford it, so in 1879 the Art Institute of Chicago was founded. By 1893, Chicago was ready to flaunt itself to the world. Our civic leaders had successfully bid and bribed to make Chicago the site of the Columbian Exposition.

The world fair was an international spectacle. Fifty-two nations participated, and it was a showcase of modern technology. The Exposition used electricity and it featured the latest invention by Thomas Edison: a device that showed moving pictures. The first motion picture was of a man sneezing: the special effects were great but there was no plot. (Does that sound familiar?)

Thanks to the Columbian Exposition, Chicago finally attained respectability. Mind you, we always have relapses, and we do take pride in our notoriety: a fixed World Series, Al Capone, and a long tradition of indicted aldermen. When the stock market rises or falls five hundred points, often in the same day, the news will always feature Chicago frenzied futures traders, not those boring Wall Street types. This city was not named for a dull onion.