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Food Dude

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By Jim Duncan

The Iowa State Fair

After spending two weeks this summer eating my way through eastern Kentucky and western Tennessee, I had a new insight about Iowa State Fair food concessions: They are mostly psychotic variations of Southern food — as in the cliché “a redneck will eat anything if it’s deep-fried.”

The differences between Southern fried foods and Iowa State Fair fried foods are more interesting than the similarities. Down south, every place I visited offered fried green tomatoes and fried banana peppers. Fine dining establishments featured both lamb fries (testicles) and deep fat fried bacon. Tomatoes, peppers, lamb and bacon are all more Iowan than Southern, yet I couldn’t find any of those foods being fried at our fair. On the other hand, the fair offered deep fat fried versions of Twinkies, macaroni and cheese, Oreos and sausages battered in corn meal. All of those foods are far more popular in the South, but I‘ve never seen them deep-fried there. Since most carnies winter down south, I figure that things like deep fried Oreos originated as manic experiments which led to the conclusion: “We could sell this crap to the Yankees.”

State fair concessionaires have become relatively faddish. Almost every Southern chef is loyal to his or her favorite frying fat: rendered lard, peanut oil, grape seed oil or shortening. Most fair vendors are switching to “trans-fat free vegetable oil,” as if you can make deep fat fried Twinkies healthy. I found “apple fries” that weren’t fried at all; they were baked. One of Des Moines’ top chefs persuaded me to try fried chicken and onions on a stick. It wasn’t bad, but my favorite fried food dish was potato chips at The Bird‘s Nest, which also served macaroni and cheese that was as good as the deep-fried version was dreadful.

Fair food can become a ticket to childhood memories. Marketers have figured that out and now label all kinds of things as “old fashioned,” particularly drinks. I only found one such claim to be genuine — that of lemonade stands that use cane sugar, real lemons and water, period. Every “old fashioned” soft drink I found was made with the new-fashioned corn sweeteners that changed the taste of American sodas in the 1980s. I did find good Italian ices that were made in traditional fashion, with real sugar, at Isabella’s.

I stopped by the Ag Building for my favorite traditional treat — strawberry shortcake from the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Association. They told me they had to buy frozen strawberries this year, for the first time, because of Iowa’s late spring freeze. A walk around the Ag Building dramatized how bad the weather was for Iowa food crops. Display tables that normally overflow with prize-winning fruits and vegetables were sparsely covered. Some tables only showed blue ribbon winners — because categories only drew one entrant. Some blue ribbon winners this year wouldn’t have won anything in an average year.

I needed a reminder of the high quality of Iowa foods, something that was sacrificed in my lifetime for higher quantities of crops grown to feed livestock and automobiles instead of humans. At the campground, I talked to members of the Betty and Gene Burgett family of Lucas County. They’ve been camping each year for the duration of the fair since 1948. They bring their own food by slaughtering and butchering a few of their hogs and cattle. They store their food in deep freezers and refrigerators, which they also cart to the campsite. They need all that to feed everyone — the family members I talked to could only count their number through the first three generations, about 30. The family feeds all the campground workers, too.

I left feeling more hopeful about the future of Iowa food.

Side dishes
Dragon House (10912 Douglas, Urbandale) now serves Cantonese dim sum from traditional mobile carts. The menu includes multiple dumplings, plus exotics like chicken feet and chicken wrapped in lotus leaves. They also make their own hand-pulled noodles. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07) Aryana (3-8-07)
AJ's (3-15-07) Ban Thai (3-22-07)
Two Crop Palace(3-29-07) Mo Q x 2 (4-5-07)
What's In A Name?(4-12-07) Lemongrass (4-19-07)
Chef Joe's Place (5-3-07) Suburban Restaurant (5-10-07)
Gateway Market Café (5-17-07) Irina’s Restaurant Bar (5-24-07)
Trailer Tripe (5-31-07) Azalea (6-07-07)
Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
El Sabor Latino (6-28-07) Crouse Café (7-5-07)
Bistro Montage (7-12-07) Jaliscolita rebounds (7-19-07)
New Saigon (7-26-07) Smokey D's BBQ (8-2-07)
Gourmet Burgers (8-9-07)  

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