By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
The best-selling 1932 novel State Fair centers around Blue Boy, “the finest hog that ever was,” and the quest of his owners, the Frake family, to get him the blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair. In the book (which later became a Will Rogers movie), author Phil Stong proclaims, “If Blue Boy proved to be the best Hampshire boar in Iowa, it followed that he would be the best Hampshire boar in the world…the finest hog in the universe.”
Such is the aura of Iowa’s grand annual exposition, where everything is the biggest and the best of what’s been grown, raised, cooked, or crafted in the heartland. During the Fair’s eleven-day August run, fourteen thousand sumptuous farm animals are brought to Des Moines to vie for prizes; countless jars of pickles, sheets of fudge, and crocks of marmalade are painstakingly prepared and entered for judging; a life-sized cow is sculpted from butter; and a million people come to enjoy the show and eat themselves silly.
The four-hundred-acre Fairgrounds is a food festival where the insatiable omnivore may spend days laying waste to fried cheese curds and sugared funnel cakes, plate-size cinnamon rolls and foot-long hot dogs, Gizmo sandwiches and Brother Bubba Basilica’s barbecue-on-a-bun and still not taste everything. So, in service to eaters eager to meet the challenge of the greatest grazing ground on earth, we offer these not-to-be-missed highlights.
Of course you have to have a corn dog, a hot dog on a stick encased in golden-fried corn batter. Today the primary symbol of Iowa Fair food, the corn dog as we know it first appeared here in 1954, but it attained perfection in the sixties, when concessionaire Melvin Little improved its batter. His daughter Helen operates corn dog stands throughout the Fairgrounds; some boast “bigger, better” corn dogs and others, “jumbo, plumper” corn dogs. We are not bees fins enough to evaluate the subtle differences among the several versions of wieners, but we can say that Iowa State Fair corn dogs are superior to any you’ll find at roadside stops around the nation.
In the Swine Barn, a sign just down the aisle from the pen of the biggest boar (in 1997 it was Roughneck, of Alden, Iowa: 1,037 pounds) notes that “One out of every sixteen jobs in the state is pig-related.” Iowa is the nation’s top pork producer, and whereas the Fair abounds with ways to sample it—as barbecue, a sausage-on-a-stick, or a ham sandwich—the Pork Tent is designed for advanced porcine appreciation. No longer just the simple canvas canopy it was when the Iowa Pork Producers first set up here nearly twenty years ago, it’s now a large dining hall with a concrete floor, known for its most popular item, the Iowa pork chop.
An Iowa pork chop is not just a pork chop from an Iowa pig. It is a HUGE pork chop from an Iowa pig—weighing approximately one pound and well over an inch thick. If skinny supermarket flaps of meat are your idea of a pork chop, this glistening Gargantua is a revelation—like eating filet mignon after a lifetime of cube steak. It is sweet and juicy, fine-grained and dense, but supple enough to slice with the flimsy plastic knife provided.
“Do you want one hot off the grill?” asks the woman grilling smoked pork chops at the Old West Bar-B-Q buffet, by the Agriculture Building (in which the beet that looks like Dagwood Bumstead and the Bob Hope–faced eggplant are on display). Served with sweet beans and gravy, smoked pork chops are not as elegant as Iowa chops, but they have a fetching zest and are essential Fair food.
Iowa is one of the midwestern states mad about tenderloins, which are cutlets of pork, breaded and deep-fried and customarily served on buns with pickles, onions, and mustard. There are plenty of opportunities to ingest one at the Fair, but we don’t recommend it. A good tenderloin must start with a pounded-thin sheet of meat, not a reconstituted patty; and it requires the hand of a skilled fry cook. Because every passionate eater who visits Iowa must savor this local specialty, we recommend a trip to SMITTY’S, out by the airport. In this friendly little eat-shack, you’ll find a ten-inch-diameter “King Tenderloin,” with brittle-crisp breading hugging a thin ribbon of savory moist pork.
One last pork tip: Pella bologna, at a stand called The Wooden Shoe. Made as a circular sausage in the town of Pella, south of Des Moines, the bologna is stuck on a stick and served warm. It is red, rugged, and mildly spiced and, when we order one with a “Dutch letter” for dessert, the chef inside The Wooden Shoe calls out his approval, “A dandy meal!” (Dutch letters are flaky pastries made in alphabet shapes and filled with almond paste.)
To many ice-cream devotees, the name Bauder conjures images of strawberry ice cream in the happiest pink hue imaginable, laden with huge chunks of fresh fruit. Made in the back room of a Des Moines pharmacy, this stellar treat is sold in cones and as the foundation of turtle sundaes at Bauder’s ice-cream stand in front of the Agriculture Building. For the Fair only, Bauder’s prepares confectionery sandwiches made of peppermint ice cream between chocolate cookies frosted with fudge. The gooey desserts are readily eaten, with plastic spoons, straight from their wrappers.
Fairs have always been an opportunity to indulge in things that aren’t usually served back home: nutritionally wanton snacks, novelty items, exotic dishes from other parts of the nation and the world. Here’s a quartet of curiosities well worth sampling:
Giant Turkey Legs—A handful of stands sell immense drumsticks that are slow-cooked over a smoky grate to a beautiful mahogany color. Served without utensils, to be eaten Neanderthal-style, they are a great dish for chomping on the stroll.
Ribbon Fries—Paper-thin slices of fried potato that come out of the kettle like clumped-together potato chips. We recommend those sold by the food stand on the Grand Concourse near the booth demonstrating “The Crock Pot that Can’t Explode.” Ribbon fries come as part of a combo platter, which is topped with chili, cheese, tomatoes, jalapeno chiles, and sour cream and is served on a regulation-size Frisbee.
Maid-Rite—An Iowa passion, cooked and spiced ground beef on a bun, available with cheese, known to those from the western towns as a loose meat sandwich or a tavern.
Kettle Korn—Air light, crisp popcorn with a beguiling touch of sugar.
Church suppers are a State Fair tradition going back more than a century. They allow traditionalists who come to the city to partake of familiar sit-down family-style meals rather than having to gobble strange newfangled food standing up. Two of the Iowa Fair’s remaining stalwarts are the Trimet (Trinity United Methodist Church Dining Hall), emblazoned with the motto, “Where a Good Meal is a Pleasant Memory,” and the Chesterfield Christian Church Dining Hall next door, which has been a fixture on the Fairgrounds since 1912. Your dining companions at these communal tables tend to be citizens of the solid sort, couples mostly; the gents outfitted in brand-new, still-creased Big Smith overalls, the ladies fair in flowery go-to-meeting dresses. The menu is quintessential heart-land: meat and potatoes with corn Niblets or green beans and bread and butter followed by a bowl of what is hereabout known as “salad” but is sweet enough to pass as dessert anywhere else, either combining a sunny mélange of bananas, marshmallows, and whipped topping or a mysterious pistachio-green concoction of pineapple chunks, marshmallows, and whipped topping. Pie costs extra; ice water is free.
Iowa State Fair