What I saw at the Iowa State Fair, the nation’s most popular annual food event
In “Dispatches from the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.
My roommate at college (one of those snooty, Northeastern Ivy-league institutions) was from rural Iowa, and probably the biggest offense to her about my academic interest in agriculture was that I had never been to the Iowa State Fair. That I was a Northeastern city girl born, raised, and schooled and I wanted to revolutionize our agricultural system was fine; that I wanted to do so and had never been to the country’s largest agricultural fair was inexcusable.
And so after years of excuses — counting weeds in Italian wheat fields, farming in Maine, knee surgery, or I just can’t make it out to Iowa this year — I finally drew up the courage to face my cultural curiosities and fried-food fears and went to the Iowa State Fair. For two whole days.
The first Iowa State Fair was held in southeast Iowa in 1854. There was a Ferris wheel, a grain yield competition, a display of reptiles preserved in alcohol. Female equestrianism seems to have been the entertainment highlight of the fair. Then, as they do now, people came from afar to view and experience the wonders and oddities of our food production system.
One-hundred-and-fifty-four years later, my roommate and I joined 1.1 million others at the fairgrounds in Des Moines for the annual food contests, animal shows, crafts exhibits, and smorgasbord of fried foods.
My fears of fried foods materialized immediately. Corn dog on a stick! Chicken-shrimp on a stick! Cajun cheese on a stick! Pork on a stick! Deep-fried pineapple on a stick! Salted nut rolls! (Salted nut rolls?) Deep-fried Twinkies. Deep-fried Oreos. Pickle Dawgs, hot dogs, veggie dogs (for the few and the proud). And for those watching their waistlines, salad — on a stick! In the end the choice was simple — corndogs are signature fair food and therefore a must. I slathered mustard on my (veggie — have mercy on me, I’m a vegetarian) corndog and tried not to stab myself in the mouth with the “stick.”
Veggie corndog in belly, my roommate and I wandered to the food contests building, which also conveniently had free ice cream. Ice cream in hand, we listened to panels of grandmothers judge the All American Apple Pie, Tater Toppings, Valsic Canned Relishes, and the Iowa Best Pot Pie. Display cases of winners and runners-up of the cookies, cakes, breads, and jams judging contests lined the walls. I have never seen such diversity in jelly color.
From the food judging, we went to the leg judging, where a panel of judges was determining the winner of the “Mr. Legs” contest and its sub-categories (hairiest, most athletic, longest, shortest, whitest, heftiest). Watching middle-aged men strut their pale, hairy legs across the stage was less than appetizing, so we went to the agriculture building to visit the butter beauty of the fair.
The 600-pound low moisture, pure-cream-Iowa-butter “Butter Cow” has attracted confused and curious fair-goers since the early 1900s. It is a tribute to the skill of food artists the world around, as the cow is life-sized and sculpted to resemble one of the six major dairy breeds every year. Apparently, if one were to eat the Butter Cow, it would take 19,200 slices of toast and two lifetimes dedicated to butter consumption. Not for the faint of heart or the high of cholesterol.
After twenty minutes on line and twenty seconds in front of the dairy ruminant, we made our way through crowds of fried-food feasters to the Avenue of Breeds. Right next to Freight Train, the fair’s biggest boar at 1,259 lbs., were aisles of pens holding sheep, goats, horses, llamas, an elk, and the cutest animal at the entire fair, the baby miniature donkey.
Exhausted from our animal sightseeing, we watched the youngest division of competitors at the fair’s talent show while sipping sophisticatedly away at some fresh-squeezed lemonade. Although we stuck through a performance of seven-year-old girls gracefully moving their non-existent curves in ways that I could never dream of moving my almost-non-existent curves, we decided to call it a day when an 11-year-old started belting Annie’s “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
We spent most of the second day on our great fair exploration inspecting and admiring quilts, FFA projects, quilts, duck wood carvings, quilts, hand-painted porcelain objects, quilts, farm sculptures, and quilts. We even got to watch as a man carved a bald eagle out of a chunk of ice using a chainsaw. My favorite building was where 4-H projects were on display. There, I learned about biofuels, sugar consumption in sodas, and infant botulism. I decided I would furnish my future house with cabinets, coffee tables, chairs, and a canoe only from 4-H projects. And I marveled at the 4-H quilts, even if I had had my fill of quilts at the Fabric and Threads wing in the Varied Industries building earlier that day.
The fair boasts the best and worst of our agricultural system. The displays, exhibits, and contests (from the apple pies to the Mr. Legs) are home-grown, from the bottom-up; everyone can participate and the determination of the blue ribbon, red ribbon, and no ribbon recipients is in the hands of panels of people, not experts. Yet the industry is present; the Pork Producers and the Cattlemen have their separate eating areas, and there are suspicious Iowa State University signs dispelling the obesity-high-fructose corn syrup link by pointing out that “High Fructose Corn Syrup has made sweet confections more readily available at a lower cost. It is our consumption of these products that has caused obesity.”
And to those claiming that a certain impressive food event in San Francisco this past weekend is the largest food event in America, I suggest you make the trip out to the Iowa State Fair next year. As I note above, the Iowa State Fair drew more than a million folks this year. Slow Food Nation’s inaugural effort attracted 60,000.