Photo: wade via Flickr

Do the ride thing.
Photo: David Wade

Every year for the last 36, Iowa plays host to a unique event. At the beginning of the last full week of July, more than 15,000 people dip the rear tires of their bicycles in the Missouri River — and seven days and about 450 miles later, they dunk their front tires in the Mississippi. That ceremonial immersion draws to a close a ride that is sometimes called “Burning Man on Wheels,” or “The World’s Longest Pub Crawl,” but is formally referred to as RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

“What does the largest bike ride of its kind have to do with food?” I can hear you saying. Quite a lot, actually, even if only because these 15,000 people and their support staff need to be fed at least 21 meals (that’s 315,000 meals for those of you keeping score at home), plus all the snacks and tidbits the riders munch on along the way. The common t-shirt: “Will Ride for Pie.” Me, I ride for all the food.

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Each of the seven overnight towns put on big citywide festivals, replete with requisite pie of course, but so much more. Pizza On Wheels, very familiar to those of you who have followed Phish (or before them the Grateful Dead) around the country, is based here in Iowa City and is one of the most popular places because of their remarkable whole wheat crust and attention to freshness in their ingredients. Their veggie pizza alone is worth the 82 miles and 6,000 vertical feet of climb we did today, in hailstorms and 90+ degree heat.

The tiny towns in between do their best to welcome the influx of riders, which can sometimes increase the towns’ populations by factors of 25 or more. In the western Iowa town of Kimballton this morning, the strapping young descendents of even more strapping Danish immigrant ancestors prepared aebleskiver, a form of Danish pancake, shaped in a ball, with a unique spicy flavor.

Alongside the myriad food vendors, whose wares range from organic, free-trade coffee and “Garden of Eden” vegetarian delights to more ways to cook beef and pork than you can imagine, are folks with causes to promote, such as Clif Bar’s effort to combat climate change with their “2-mile challenge,” or the Iowa Bicycle Coalition (proud member that I am) which works to promote bike-friendly streets and rural trails. Individual riders promote causes too, from women’s rights to green causes to more tongue-in-cheek messages such as the jersey I saw today encouraging us all to “Vote Cheney ’08: A Freedom-Shitting Eagle of Death.” Passed him on the left.

In a couple days I’ll have to hop off the trail and rejoin the my crew in Iowa City as my restaurant Devotay prepares to serve our brand of yummy eats to my thousands of friends. We shall endeavor to please both vegan and omnivore alike, grilling our abundance of July zucchini for sandwiches and assorted other veggies on sticks. On a completely separate grill, we’ll cook up two kinds of bratwurst, beef and pork, both from Highland Vista Farm‘s happy, pastured, organic livestock. We’ll boil ’em in good local beer before grilling.

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To wash it down, we’ll have spearmint tea from the restaurant’s own gardens and honey straws (literally straws full of honey — a great natural burst while riding) from Noble Bee Apiaries of South Amana, Iowa. All in all, we expect to serve about 3,000 meals in the span of about 8 hours, or roughly 6.25 per minute. Not exactly Slow Food in the strictest sense, but good, clean, and fair nonetheless.

Aebleskiver (Spiced Danish Pancakes)

2 cups sifted flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cardamom
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
2/3 cup milk
3 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons melted butter

To make this dish, you don’t need a special Viking hat, but an aebleskiver pan is necessary. You can order one here.

Set aebleskiver pan over low heat. Sift together all the dry ingredients in a large bowl and set them aside. Combine the sour cream, milk, and egg yolks. Using your hand or a spoon, make a well in center of dry ingredients and add liquid mixture all at once, stirring until just well blended (do not overstir or they’ll be tough).

Whip the egg whites to soft, rounded peaks. Gently fold the batter into the whites.

Test the aebleskiver pan by dropping a few drops of cold water on it; if drops sizzle and dance around in small beads, temperature is right.

Using a pastry brush, grease the aebleskiver pan wells with about 1/2 tsp melted butter per well.

Fill each well about half full with batter. With a fork or a skewer, turn aebleskiver frequently to brown evenly (see video for demo). Do not pierce until near done (browned evenly all around). Aebleskiver are done when a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve immediately sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.

Makes 4 dozen pancakes.