Raisin Day Was the OG Food Holiday
Back in the day, California’s raisin crop was celebrated by parades, giveaways, and “Raisin Kings.”
Since you’re reading a food website, you’re no doubt aware that there are many more “food holidays” than there should be. According to the people who keep track of these sorts of things, this coming week alone includes “National Pretzel Day,” “National Prime Rib Day,” and “National Shrimp Scampi Day,” just to name a few.
Not all of these days are created equal. National Donut Day was created by the Salvation Army in 1938 to thank those who served doughnuts to soldiers in World War I, an occasion that still serves as a fundraising opportunity for the organization. Conversely, plenty of occasions like National Froot Loop Day materialized out of thin air thanks to John Bryans-Hopkins, a food writer from Alabama who made it his mission to ensure there was at least one such holiday for all 365 days of the year.
Still, whether a national food day is bona-fide or bogus, its existence is somewhat indebted to Raisin Day. Not only was it arguably the first modern food holiday, but it can teach a lot of these weak, watered-down food holidays a thing or two about how to party.
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Raisin Day was started in 1909 with a single purpose: to sell more raisins. James Horsbaugh Jr, a general passenger agent for the Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) Railroad, first had the idea to celebrate one of Central California’s biggest agricultural products. Horsbaugh hoped it would “help the United States gain a foothold in the worldwide raisin market, which had long been dominated by European countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea,” according to Sun-Maid Brand Historian William Secrest. A estimate cited by the San Francisco Examiner at the time implied that European consumption of dried grapes outpaced California’s by a factor of 12.
Of course there weren’t food blogs back in 1909, which meant that Horsbaugh had to go around and convince the relevant cultural gatekeepers that Raisin Day could be A Thing. Luckily, it worked. The May 7th, 1921 issue of California Fruit News recalls that Horsbaugh “personally went to Fresno to offer his suggestion,” which “was favorably received by a committee.” Soon enough, local producers were on board and the efforts to launch Raisin Day were underway.
Held on April 30, 1909, the first Raisin Day involved a flurry of activity across the state of California. “In Fresno, there were raisin-themed baseball games, automobile races, and military drills,” Secrest says. Details from the San Francisco Examiner’s May 1, 1909 issue suggest the inaugural celebration featured many of the characteristics that define modern “food holidays.” San Francisco’s famous Fairmont Hotel added a variety of raisin-based dishes. And lest you think only modern consumers can turn into a mob when offered free food, it took eight policemen to control the hundreds of hungry Angelenos who descended upon the Los Angeles Examiner’s office to get their hands on some of the 10,000 raisin cartons that were given away.
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Perhaps spurred on by the establishment of the California Associated Raisin Company in 1912, subsequent Raisin Day celebrations grew in scope, eventually coalescing around Fresno. The 1916 edition brought an influx of between 90,000 and 100,000 visitors to Fresno, temporarily tripling the population of California’s raisin-growing hub. A gigantic castle was erected on the city’s fairgrounds, and a parade that the Sun-Maid Herald “estimated to be six miles long” drew participants from as far away as San Diego. By 1921, Raisin Day had expanded to a two-day celebration and involved a “Raisin King and Queen” pageant, which coronated silent film stars like Tom Mix and Monte Blue in various years.
Just as a grape will shrivel up if left out in the sun, a few factors eventually caused enthusiasm for Raisin Day to dry out. Sun-Maid Brand Historian Secrest suggests that an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease forced the cancellation of the parade in 1934, which by that point had become something of a signature event. And with the Great Depression exacting its toll, the large-scale festivities that temporarily turned Fresno into the raisin capital of the world weren’t revived in the years afterward.
Still, Horsbaugh’s plan to boost California’s raisin industry through a statewide celebration of dried grapes achieved its goal. Nearly 110 years after the first Raisin Day festivities, USDA data from 2018 estimated that the United States would produce 263,000 metric tons of raisins in the 2018-19 growing season. US production—which in this case essentially means raisins from California’s San Joaquin Valley—is currently second only to Turkey, a country it often outpaces.
There may no longer be a raisin king or queen, or any raisin-themed baseball games to watch, but it’s worth looking back on the time when, as the San Francisco Examiner put it in 1909, “all true Californians rose to the cry of… ‘Let us eat raisins, for they are good to eat and wholesome!’” Without that clarion call, today’s food holidays and their attendant giveaways simply might not exist. Put that in your trail mix and eat it.