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Cover Story

Travel to eat!

5/13/2015

From kranskake to rhubarb pie, or strawberries to barbecue, expand your culinary tastes at these diverse Iowa food festivals

Why do we travel? Aesop answered that question simply. “Adventure is worthwhile.” Gustave Flaubert considered it humbling. “Travel makes us modest. It reveals what a tiny part of the world you have occupied.” Oliver Wendell Holmes considered travel the greatest of learning experiences. “A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never return to its old dimensions.”

Much has been written about adventure travel, from Homer’s “Odyssey” to Sir Richard Burton’s search for the source of the Nile, to Hemingway’s exploration of war and death and Robert Young Pelton’s wanderings amongst today’s “Most Dangerous Places on Earth.” When Thoreau was asked why he had never gone to Europe, he replied, “I have traveled much in Concord.” One need not go to the ends of the earth to realize the benefits that Flaubert and Holmes mentioned. One need only travel with an open mind.

Most people eat to travel. They are the folks whom large chain restaurants such as McDonald’s attract with huge neon signs visible from interstate highways. These diners seek no adventures in their eating, just predictability. There are a smaller, but rapidly growing, percentage of wanderers who travel to eat. These food centric travelers have influenced hotel dining rooms to offer more local foods on their menus and to provide more concierge services to help guests locate unique dining treats.

From World War II until the new millennium, Iowa languished in the coastal foodie mind as part of “flyover country.” That has been changing faster than the Blue Ribbon Bacon Fest has been growing. In Iowa, any year is now a floating feast of food fests and fairs that encourage travelers to come hither and taste something new, expanding their minds along with their palates.

Food tourism

Ames Chamber

This year’s Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival (winter dates for 2016 have not yet announced, Des Moines), now a weeklong event, coincided with Super Bowl week. The two things have a lot in common. Last year’s Bacon Fest party sold out 12,000 tickets in just 42 minutes. They were purchased in 41 states and from as far away as Brazil, China and Denmark. After only seven years, the festival has created avatars in Iceland, Wisconsin and Colorado and another, bigger than ever, location is imminent.

In Bacon Fest’s typical defiance of political correctness, this year’s big show, including all star wrestlers, was subtitled “The Mecca of bacon fests.” That despite the fact that much of the bacon fest activities (alcohol and pork consumption) could get one beheaded in Mecca. This is not family entertainment; it’s adults-only stuff in which bacon is featured in a decadent number of forms. In fact, the power eating competitions seem redundant.

The bacon explosion is a much loved treat of Blue Ribbon Bacon Fest.

The bacon explosion is a much loved treat of Blue Ribbon Bacon Fest.

The delicious northeast

Decorah is Iowa’s greatest food-centric travel destination. Because the rocky, hillocky land in northeast Iowa was never suitable to plow over for row cropping, agriculture has remained old fashioned in the best sense of the words — sustainable, diversified, highly organic and natural. The farmers markets and the Oneota Food Co Op in Decorah are treasure troves of Iowa food bounty.

The magnificent Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is the largest ethnic museum in the United States dedicated to a single nation’s immigrants. Its adjacent Dayton House Cafe specializes in Norwegian treats like lefse and krumkakke. The Winneshiek Wildberry Winery grows most of its fruits on site and offers 20 artisan wines, plus local truffles and cheeses. The Hotel Winneshiek is arguably the state’s best hotel, with its own restored historic opera house.

Decorah’s biggest year-round draw for food travelers is Seeds Savers Exchange. Nestled among sparkling streams, limestone bluffs and century-old white pinewoods, the 890-acre farm is a living museum of historic varieties of seed diversity. It’s a virtual world bank of seed stock that immigrants carried to the new world and also many that only recently crossed from Europe. Thousands of heirlooms are grown in certified organic fields, and seeds are preserved and sold. An historic orchard raises hundreds of varieties of 18th-century apples and many old grapes, including more than 100 breeding lines from the collection of famed grape breeder Elmer Swenson. Visitors may harvest fallen fruits in autumn. Amish carpenters built a meeting center in the barn’s cathedral-like loft and have completed the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center that offers a wide selection of heirloom seeds, horticultural books and garden gifts.

The farm also has a herd of endangered Ancient White Park Cattle, which roamed the British Isles before the time of Christ. Today only about 800 of these extremely rare, wild cattle survive worldwide, including slightly more than 200 in the U.S. About 80 of those reside in Decorah. These stunning animals have white coats, lyre-shaped horns with black tips, and black ears, noses, eyes, teats and hooves.

The Nordic Fest (Decorah July 23-25) is an ideal time to visit Decorah. Parades, music, crafts and Scandinavian foods are featured. The latter include the holy trinity of Nordic sweets — lefse (potatoes, flour, sugar, salt, cream and butter), kranskake (almonds, sugar, vinegar and egg whites) and Rømmegrøt (butter, flour, sugar and salt). Other Nordic foods offered include varme polse (a sausage and meatball mixture) and sot suppe (fruit soup). In addition, Norse pastries like kringla, krumkakke and sandbakkels are served like hot dogs at a football game. Food demonstrations and tasting opportunities are held throughout the Fest, and you’ll be able to discuss recipes and techniques with some of the area’s finest cooks.

Czechs and Danes

During Houby Days (May 15-17, Cedar Rapids), Iowa’s largest Czech community celebrates the state’s obsession with the stalked mushroom. In the middle of morel hunting season, the festival honors the original Czech and Slovak immigrants to Iowa who enshrined mushroom hunting in the state’s consciousness while also transforming European wiener schnitzel into the breaded pork tenderloin — now Iowa’s most famous dish. Like many similar ethnic events, Houby Days preserves old recipes and culture in a time when both get lost in a blur of suburban sprawl and inter-ethnic marriage.

Some of best apples on Earth grow in the Loess Hills.

Some of best apples on Earth grow in the Loess Hills.

The Danish Villages of Iowa are fun to visit anytime when the seasonal Danish Inn restaurant and Museum of Danish America are open. The former hosts buffets that always include a few Danish dishes and an all-Danish smorgasbord on Sundays. The latter includes a marvelous permanent display about dairy farming history, a main profession of Danes in America. Even the convenience store in Elk Horn has a meat counter with Danish treats like medisterpolse (sausage). During the Tivoli Fest (Memorial Day weekend, Elk Horn and Kimballton), one can find Danish foods and specialties such as smorrebrod (cold cuts on dark rye) and aebleskiver (Danish pancakes), plus tours of the Danish Windmill, Bedstemor’s Hus, the Museum of Danish America and visits to unique gift shops. The Danes of Kimballton have been folk dancing since the town began. The villages also host a Julefest annually during Thanksgiving weekend. That Christmas festival features more than 25 local businesses, organizations, historical sites and museums.

The famous Amanas

The historic Amana Colonies have been a food-centric tourist attraction much longer than any other place in Iowa. They attract fans with monthly art walks, church lady potlucks, shepherd events, wine tasting, wine pairings, old car shows, etc. Rhubarb Day (June 6) is the most complete festival celebrating Iowa’s great spring food. The Amana Colonies are famous for rhubarb pie and wine (peistengle), and on this Saturday all things rhubarb are celebrated. Obviously a German colony would become expert at sausage making, and the Wurst Fest (June 20) shows that off. This year’s 50th annual Oktoberfest (Oct 2-3) is Iowa’s oldest. It begins with an official keg tapping and ends with full day of German food and music.

19th century Iowa today

Van Buren County, proudly Iowa’s only county without a traffic light, is filled with magnificent old buildings, many built by Mormon craftsmen earning their way to Utah in the 1800s. Towns like Benstonsport, Bonaparte and Keosauqua have long drawn food tourists with their old inns and great food. The Dutchman Store in nearby Cantril offers artisan food products rarely seen elsewhere in Iowa.

Farmington’s Strawberry Festival (June 12 -13) is the best time of year to taste the county’s bounty. Lots of camping opportunities project the festival into a bucket list of Iowa food trips. Free strawberries and ice cream are offered each day during set hours.

Iowa’s BBQ circuit

Iowa hosts a barbecue festival nearly weekly in good weather months. Mason City’s Up in Smoke BBQ Bash (July 24 -25) is the best, in our book, because it’s held in the marvelously wooded East State Park. People come to compete — and also just to eat Q — from as far away as Texas every year. Mason City, with the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Stockman House and Park Inn hotel, multiple Meredith Willson attractions and several museums, has its own charms. The Susie-Q Café is one of the most photogenic old diners in the nation. The revered Northwestern Steak House features a Greek steak that precedes de Burgo.

The way it was

Mount Pleasant is the center of one of Iowa’s most surprising food regions. Nearby Fairfield is home to more restaurants and Asian restaurants per capita than San Francisco. Several are organic, some even Ayurvedic. Mount Pleasant itself is an elk center, and that Iowa meat is popular at the Old Threshers Reunion (Sept. 3-7, Mount Pleasant.)

Visitors characterize this event as “The Iowa State Fair like it was 50 years ago.” There’s some fairness in that. The focus of the festival is nostalgia because, more than anything, it honors the history of farming and the inventions that changed farm life in the last 150 years. Displays show how sorghum was made in a 100-year timespan. People come to the event religiously each year to remember old mechanical friends that made their lives easier. There are more church group food booths here than at the state fair where more modern conveniences have replaced their charms.

The overlooked city

Marvelously preserved, downtown Waterloo is the best kept food travel secret among Iowa’s largest towns. The Irish Fest (July 31 – Aug. 2) is the state’s largest, too. It’s set within a block or two of several of the city’s top restaurants — Jameson, where the bar was imported from Ireland, CU, Newton’s and Galleria de Paco, where the ceiling is a spray painted version of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Irish Fest includes road races, an “Anything Irish” photography contest and a rugby tournament to allow Irish-minded folk to compete.

God’s gift to Iowa

Arguably nature’s greatest gift to Iowa, the Loess Hills provide one of the world’s three largest areas of loess — loam so rich in nutrients that things grow there like nowhere else. It’s also considered the best foundation soil, so the hills have been raided lately to help build downtown Omaha. This loess was the source of grapes that made Iowa a top wine state before an infamous summer freeze drove vintners to other crops 80 years ago. Today, the hills are alive with apple joy. Small’s Fall Fest (Oct. 11, Mondamin) is in the midst of one of the best such apple orchards and offers all things apple — ciders to pies — during this great event in the height of leaf-turning time.

The way we were

The history of food festivals has roots in the agricultural fairs of Europe’s Middle Ages. Clay County’s fair (Sept. 12-20, Spencer) began in 1918 and has grown consistently ever since. It is now considered the second largest agricultural exposition in North America and draws more than 300,000 fans a year. Set amongst the most valuable farmland in the state, the fair has the reputation of drawing some of the finest livestock to show. Of course, there are myriad other opportunities to indulge in the treats of the midway and the vendors of such events. And it’s almost off season in the nearby Iowa Great Lakes, so bargain lodgings can be found. CV 

 

Some other food events

Taste of Iowa City, Aug. 26, Iowa City. Arguably the most eclectic food town in the state, Iowa City has myriad restaurants that support this event with enthusiasm.

Real Maple Syrup Pancake Feed, Aug. 15, Hancock. Botna Bend Park’s maple trees are tapped and their sap boiled down to provide the freshest possible tree-to-fork maple syrup with grilled pancakes, orange juice, sausage and coffee.

World Food and Music Festival, Sept. 18-20, Des Moines. Des Moines hosts a lot of ethnic food fairs: CelebrAsian, Italian American Heritage, Latin Heritage, etc. This one accommodates every one of those groups, plus others one doesn’t see the rest of the year. Cooking demonstrations and live music make it the biggest street fest in Iowa.

Smokin’ in the Junction, May 23-24, Valley Junction, West Des Moines

Tivoli Fest 2015, May 23-24, Elk Horn

World Pork Expo, June 3-5, Iowa State Fairgrounds, Des Moines

Ackley Sauerkraut Days, June 4-7, Ackley. This annual festival features free sauerkraut and wieners, parades, entertainment and amusement rides

Manchester Annual Rhubarb Fest, June 6, Manchester

June Bloom Wine & Food Event, June 6-7, Great River Road Wine Trail

Fredericksburg’s Dairy Days, June 9-10, Fredericksburg

Strawberry Days, June 12-14, Strawberry Point

Farmington Strawberry Festival, June 12-14, Farmington

Centerville Wine and Arts Festival, June 13, Centerville

Ice Cream Days, June 17-20, Le Mars.

Cedar Rapids BBQ Roundup, June 25, Cedar Rapids

Gladbrook Corn Carnival, June 25-28, Gladbrook

Lazy River Beer and Wine Festival, June 27, Marquette

Indian Creek Corn Boil, July 12, Indian Creek Museum, Emerson

Beef Days, July 17-18, Solon

Beer and Brat Festival, Aug. 8, Cedar Rapids

Adel Sweet Corn Festival, Aug. 8, Adel

Sauerkraut Days, Aug. 13-15, Lisbon

Oktoberfest in the Cedar Valley, Sept. 19, Cedar Falls

Oktemberfest, Sept. 24-27, Marshalltown

Taste of Clarinda, Dec. 3, Clarinda

 

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