Iowa State Fair: good contests and cookin’

We’re deep into fair weather, throughout the Midwest, but only one state fair nationwide makes the cut in the 2003 bestseller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” by Patricia Schultz.

The Iowa State Fair since 1854 (when in Fairfield) has epitomized Midwest sensibilities, character and cuisine. Cornfed, considerate, country-proud and kitchen-savvy: That’s the message enthusiastically and unapologetically repeated, from the fairgrounds’ 160 acres of wooded campgrounds to the livestock pavilions, whose showpieces in 2009 were a 1,117-pound boar and 3,404-pound bull.

Much ado stems from big and bizarre contests: beard growing and wood chopping, rubber chicken throwing and weed identifying, horseshoe pitching and marble shooting. Iowa’s largest tourism event presents obstacle courses for goats, limbo contests for llamas, agility demos for dogs – plus chicken, duck, rooster and turkey calling contests for people.

Pigeons are raced, rolled and auctioned. The lightest and heaviest also earn prizes. Add 85 years of fiddler contests, grape stomps, bull riding, chicken washing, egg rolling, cowboy queens and 60,621 entries in art categories (making this the state’s biggest art show).

A new state fair cookbook is printed every other year because cooks compete in more than 850 ways, including 53 new categories this year (examples are corn cob syrup creations, best corn casserole). Judging begins four days before the fair starts.

There is no limit on the number of categories that a person can enter, and the stakes sometimes are high. The top cinnamon roll prize is $3,000.

OK, this level of reward is an exception, but the generosity of food manufacturers and other prize sponsors elevates entry quality and participation in dozens of other categories. In 2009, this meant $500 for the best old-fashioned fudge, $250 for the top soy recipe, $150 for best “potluck pleaser,” $150 for best shortcake – and this is merely a sample of what I noticed.

What else? Count the fair feed as among the nation’s most creative. Even PB&J sandwiches come in the shape of farm animals.

Among the 50-plus foods on a stick are regional specialties, like the Fudge Puppy (a waffle, covered with chocolate syrup and dabbed with whipped cream) and Chicken Lips (breaded chicken, doused with hot sauce).

Small-town vendors – including twin sisters Judy Van Gorp and Karen Vander Beek of Pella, population 10,000 – find a place here, too. They use sticks at their Wooden Shoe booth to serve Dutch Letters (buttery, S-shaped pastries filled with almond paste) from Vander Ploeg Bakery and slabs of ring bologna from Pella’s International Veld Meat Market.

Top “fan favorite,” as decided by a vote of fair patrons, is the Steer ’N’ Stein, on the fairgrounds since 1945 and specializing in a gooey rarebit (a burger and fries covered with spicy cheese sauce).

What you, amazingly, won’t find: a cream puff stand. “We had one for a while, but then it was gone,” shrugs Jessica O’Riley of the Iowa Division of Tourism.

In my mind, just about any celebration of rural living is a good thing, but the Iowa State Fair is what Phil Stong had in mind when writing his 1932 novel “State Fair,” also the inspiration for three films and a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the same name.

The 125-year-old fairgrounds, a former farmstead, in 1987 earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places because of its well-preserved art deco and exposition architecture. Competitive hog calling has gone on since 1926. Big-as-life cows have been sculpted since 1911 (from lard, in the fair’s earliest years, then butter).

The fair’s official sculptors also have used butter to carve likenesses of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1996) and golfer Tiger Woods (2005). This year, Dr. Seuss characters become dairy statues.

But there’s no doubt that the Butter Cow creams the competition, regarding longevity and tradition. Sarah Pratt, fair sculptor since 2006, uses about 600 pounds of butter, smoothened over a frame of chicken wire, to design the animal.

At fair’s end, butter from the sculptures is frozen, stored and reused up to 10 times before being discarded. It’s all an indication of how seriously Iowans embrace their traditions, their ag products and their state fair.

This year’s Iowa State Fair, at East 30th Street and East University Avenue in Des Moines, is Aug. 12-22. The fairgrounds is about a five-hour drive from Eau Claire, six hours from Milwaukee, seven hours from Wausau and eight hours from Green Bay.

Admission is $7 (less for ages under 12). For more:, 800-545-FAIR.

Order the new Iowa State Fair Cookbook at

New at this year’s Wisconsin State Fair, which ends Aug. 15, is a “Days of the Dinosaur” exhibit that is touring the world. Models of prehistoric species are up to 25 feet tall, move and interact. The show was in Paris and Munich earlier this year.

Wisconsin’s first state fair was 1851 in Janesville, where a 200-pound squash wowed attendees. The event moved to Watertown, Fond du Lac and Madison before settling into its present home in 1892. For more about the event, at 640 S. 84th St., West Allis:, 800-884-FAIR.

Admission is $9 (less for ages under 12, plus 60 and older). Vendors are selling 65 foods on a stick, including last year’s big talker – chocolate-covered bacon.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.