Boredom in New York is usually the bored’s own fault. The city is crammed so full of parties, shows and events one runs into something just walking around. This makes for a slanted and somewhat jaded worldview where ‘fun’ gets taken for granted and something like the New York State Fair barely registers, what with agriculture and animal husbandry taking a backseat to nubile youth getting wasted in various states of dress. It’s easy to forget State Fairs in other states, particularly those in the Midwest, are a genuine big deal. The Iowa State fair is one of the grandest of all, with history and traditions stretching back to the turn of the century.
Visiting the fairgrounds for the first time, I asked a friend what the grounds were used for the rest of the year. He said not much really, the occasional 4-H show, but mostly the fairgrounds were just used for the fair. Wait, said I, not grasping this concept in the least, this large parcel of land with all these decorative brick buildings…just sits empty the rest of the year? Indeed, the friend said. And all the buildings are only in use the two weeks of the Iowa State Fair? Yep. As someone coming from a tiny island so crammed a closet will cost you $800 a month, this made my head explode.
To give you an idea of the fair’s history and general layout, this short film depicts the Iowa State Fair in the 1940s (via MST3K, hooray). The majority of the buildings seen are still in use to this day, and the fish tanks have been designated a historical area (an historical area?).
As can be seen, the fair is an enormous sprawling event reaching into every aspect of Iowan life: agriculture, health, family, religion, art, and local culture. As such I’ve broken up my coverage into separate subjects for easier consumption. Today’s topic- Food!
Meet food mascot Mr. Oinkers!
“Hi Kids! I’ll eat your soul!”
Oh, you kidder. Mr. Oinkers is one of many friendly fellows waiting to greet you at the kiosks!
“Eaaaaaat youuuuuur souuuuuuuuulll….”
Right! On to the food! You can’t take a step in any direction at the fair without seeing something edible and artery-clogging. For an agricultural fair, there were surprisingly few fresh fruits and vegetables available and those that were came dunked in batter. Generally food choices fell into one of two categories, with generous overlap between each: deep fried or sugar-coated.
Case in point.
Fried stuff in two sizes: plate- or tub-full.
The teenager working the deep-fryer plucked this guy out of the vat and plopped it on the plate without pause. As it oozed out a puddle of grease I vainly attempted to ask for at least a lift n’ shake to disperse some of it, but before I could even get the sentence half out he dumped a cup of powdered sugar on top. My friend and I agreed the sugar-grease absorption definitely made this the best damn funnel cake we’d ever eaten.
Normally, vegetarians traveling through the Midwest are out of luck. Vegetarianism in the flyover states is still mostly a foreign concept; the last time I stepped into Pizza Ranch (a local pizza buffet*) all the pies had meat on them, and asking for a vegetarian slice I was brought a pie with a half ton of olives dumped on top. Walking into the Fair and seeing people tearing at comically huge drumsticks Medieval Times-style, I figured here was more of the same. But lo! Shining on the main midway sat….
The Veggie Table! The shock of seeing a booth entirely dedicated to vegetarian fare at the State Fair knocked me for a considerable loop. Keep in mind this is a place where more than one booth told me God knows babies in utero and evolution is a liberal conspiracy. (See that girl in the foreground? Exactly the face I made too).
Bad pun name and Led Zepplin-inspired logo aside, The Veggie Table had a long line throughout the day for good reason: their veggie corn dog was perfectly crisp and squishy with a delicious toasted corn flavor, and their other offerings (including Portabello Mushroom Strips and Broccoli Cheddar Bites) looked equally tasty.
Another relatively inexpensive option for vegetarians (sorry vegans, you are way out of your league here): Nachos! If there’s one thing working in the cheapskate’s favor in the Midwest, it’s portion size. These weren’t even Grande!
After. Elapsed time: 2 minutes.
A word of explanation – as opposed to the East Coast, where pizza by the slice is as natural as breathing, pizza in many Midwestern states comes whole-pie or no dice, or is served buffet-style (*see Pizza Ranch. Yes, there are pizza buffets and yes, they are usually western-themed). Pizza by the slice is a novel concept in Iowa, hence the beatific glow around the slice above.
Another culture shock- condiments. You think you like condiments? You do not like them as much as Midwesterners.
Mayonnaise is a birthright here. All this stuff is from Heinz and only one of each were mustard and ketchup.
Food on a stick has become a part of State Fair culture- each year more and increasingly ridiculous food items are perched atop a dowel and served to the public. Reportedly beer on a stick was sold last year, but I didn’t see it this time around. However, I did see this stuff:
The classic corn dog, combining fried and meatstuffs on one convenient pole:
Proto-corn dogs are just hot dogs on a stick. Hot dogs on a stick look sort of sad.
Mmm, lookit that grease fly!
The Corn Dog in all its glory!
Chicken on a Stick,
Rice Krispy treat on a stick,
Some substance called Cheeze on a stick,
Meatballs on a Stick might sound like a good idea…
…but trust me, you do not want them.
Uh, some sort of German pastry on a stick,
Courtesy of the Iowa Egg Council, egg on a stick,
Deep Fried pineapple on a stick…really? Did it need to be deep fried? It did? Whatever.
Aaaaand Snickers on a stick.
I also read about but did not get a chance to experience salad on a stick and frozen twinkies on a stick.
There were a few other Fair staples that might need a bit of explanation- a number of kiosks sold something called ‘Walking Tacos’. Tacos are pretty portable already, so I asked my friend what made these particular tacos conducive to perambulation. By way of definition:
Also regional- Shake-Ups. They’re just lemonade with a big half a lemon sitting in it. The name comes from squeezing the fresh lemon into the drink and, yep, shaking it up. It does add a bright flavor to the beverage, making it taste fresher.
Coming up next: People!