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Feature Story

2024 Choice Awards

7/3/2024

Inspired by Japan’s Living National Treasures, the idea for CITYVIEW’s CHOICE awards originated 10 years ago. The Japanese program honors “preservers of important intangible cultural properties.” In the years after World War II, anxiety arose in Japan that their unique cultural traditions — noh, kabuki, origami, kumi, sumo, teapot ceramics, noodle making — might be swamped by the conquering Western culture. By honoring revered exemplars of those arts, they preserved them and made them important to a new generation.

Our intention at CITYVIEW was to do something similar for Iowa’s venerable, living food pioneers. That evolved into a hall of fame for people and institutions that bestow a singular quality and identity on our city and state. CITYVIEW’s Hall of Iowa Culinary Excellence (CHOICE) awards began when locals rued the passing of two of the most memorable food icons in Iowa history. The Younkers Tea Room was lost in a fire, and Dahl’s stores were sold or closed.

For the charter edition of the awards, we focused on venerability — enduring traditions and pioneers. The Japanese word “sabi” refers to a kind of beauty that is attained by aging, when an object’s elegance is evidenced by a changing patina. The word is most often applied to antique tea pots whose glaze has been changed by centuries of having tea intentionally poured over the top to drip down and alter the pot. 

In that spirit, our charter members in 2015 all had histories dating back to at least the mid-20th century. Several topped more than a century of service to Iowa. The following year’s class of honorable food pioneers was younger, but all blazed new trails that influenced the culinary scene of Iowa in unique ways. Since then, we have expanded upon both categories of excellence. Here is the master class of 2024.

Iowa meat lockers 

When all meat was procured via hunting, it was roasted over open fires and consumed before rotting. After humans settled down, livestock was bred and raised for food. Preservation became a necessary element of survival. Salting was the preferred method during the Greek, Roman, Mauryan, Xian and Egyptian empires. Soldiers were paid in salt; sal in Latin, is the origin of our word salary.

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In America, barbecue developed south of the ice line because smoking was the tastiest way to preserve meat without refrigeration. Iowa produced plentiful ice, so locker culture developed here years before its official origins in 1923. Cap Anson, a baseball Hall of Famer, spiteful racist and first white child born in Marshall County, noted locker precursors in his autobiography. So did pioneers before him. 

Meat lockers earned their name by providing cold storage to hunters and farmers who produced more meat than could be consumed over open fire or salted. Ice houses were prototypic lockers. The Ice House Museum in Cedar Falls dates its history to 1858. The structure that serves now as a museum thrived from 1921 till it was lost as a business in the Great Depression. In its hey days, 8,000 tons of ice were stored. 

Today’s Iowa lockers provide butchering, processing and smoking services as well as preservation. The name “locker” derived from the individual ice rooms that were rented by hunters and farmers and protected by lock and key. 

Some Iowa lockers are only open during hunting season. Others have become the largest businesses in their towns. They contribute to one of our state’s most celebrated tourism niches and are a main reason Saudi sheiks and rock stars flock here for autumn’s bountiful game seasons. Pheasants, quail, deer and even elk can be butchered, dressed and frozen overnight before flying away on private jets. 

Established in 1973, Webster City Custom Meats (WCCM) operates a 70,500-square-foot main plant, a 35,000-square-foot warehouse, and a 9,000-square-foot truck garage. WCCM specializes in wholesale custom meat processing of smoked ham, smoked bacon, fresh sausage products and smoked pork loins. They offer nine flavor choices from maple, hickory and apple tree woods to honey jalapeno plus bacon thicknesses from seven to 22 slices per pound. 

Atlantic has two lockers. Henningsen’s Processing Plant of 1978 is west of town, and Atlantic Locker is in the northwest part. Gress Locker in Hancock dates to 1961. Kitt’s in Dedham is home of Dedham bologna, which dates to 1914. Ventura Locker began in 1938. Brighton Meat Locker has the pledge of allegiance painted on its building.  

Skoglund’s in West Bend specializes in venison. Ruzicka’s Meat Processing & Catering in Solon is famous for its jaternice. Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern sought out the jaternice at Polashek’s in Protovin. Hamburg Locker is operated by a third generation of the same family. Guthrie County Quality Meats evolved from the free ranging Cloverleaf Dairy. Their retail display case now rivals those of supermarkets and includes beef, pork, poultry and lamb.

Since 1966, the Kerns family has grown Edgewood Locker from two employees to 50 full-time, plus 40 part-time. More than 100 additional stores retail Edgewood Locker products throughout Iowa. In 2018, they processed 3,766 hogs and 1,594 cattle. In the 2021-2022 deer season, hunters brought in 3,717 whole deer carcasses and more than 182,000 pounds of boneless deer to be made into Edgewood’s award-winning sausage. That created 485,000 pounds of homemade deer products. Edgewood won the National Cured Meat Championship’s Jerky Grand Champion award in 1987.

 

Don Lamberti

Casey’s General Store

The nation’s third largest, and the largest wholly American-owned, convenience store chain started in 1959 when Don Lamberti leased property from his parents at East 14th and Broadway in Des Moines. He was 22 at the time. 

“Dad was buying gas from Kurvin C. Fish, nickname K.C., at the time, and K.C. thought Dad’s idea of selling general store products in a gas station had legs,” explained Jeff Lamberti, Don’s son. 

“They bought four gas stations and bulk oil businesses and converted an old building in Boone into the first Casey’s General Store, in 1968 officially,” Jeff explained.  

Casey’s grew from the heart of one community to the next, time after time. Don built another successful store in Creston and decided to open a store from scratch in the even smaller town of Waukee, population 1,500 at the time. The Waukee store proved to be the most successful of the three, so Lamberti decided to purchase and open more stores, concentrating on towns of less than 5,000 population, a variation on the tactic used in the early days of Walmart.

By the late 1970s, when Casey’s opened its first warehouse, the chain had 118 stores, including the original store operated by Don’s parents. In 1982, Casey’s opened its first distribution center in Urbandale. Today, the $12 billion business serves communities in 16 states and more than 2,400 store locations. In 1983, it became publicly traded. 

In 1984, it began making pizza. Today, Casey’s is the fifth largest pizza retailer in America, selling 63 million slices and 30 million whole pies a year. Lots of gas stations sell pizza, but Casey’s makes its dough from scratch on premises daily. They make taco pizza, which probably originated in Iowa at Happy Joe’s, and breakfast pizza, called “bizza” in Iowa, according to Casey’s website. 

Casey’s is also the fourth-largest holder of liquor licenses in the U.S., making it a one-stop-shop for “dinner and a 6-pack.” In 2023, Casey’s received trademark status as “The Official Pizza and Beer Headquarters.”

Headquartered in Ankeny since 1994, Casey’s opened its 1,000th store in 1996 and 2,500th last year in Lebanon, Indiana. Don slipped out of the corporate world and entered the philanthropic realm. With his wife, Charlene, they founded Bridges of Iowa to help those struggling with substance and alcohol addiction. That was urged by son Anthony, a victim. Bridges of Iowa has saved thousands of lives with a long-term program that helps clients “get clean, tackle their demons, improve emotional and physical health, repair broken relationships with families and friends, secure employment, and lead productive lives.”

Don, Charlene and Jeff are currently spearheading the development of the Italian American Cultural Center of Iowa, which will include state-of-the-art kitchen and event center properties.

 

Mike Wedeking

Flying Mango

Flying Mango has been around more than a quarter-century, 21 years at its present location in Beaverdale and five before that at farmers markets and as a catering service. Its name came because owner Mike Wedeking has been a licensed pilot since he was 18, and mango is his favorite fruit.  

Wedeking runs things the old-fashioned way, greeting customers personally and making sure service trumps everything else. No other restaurant in Iowa has a personality like the Mango. If the restaurant was a singer-songwriter, it would be Jimmy Buffet. Wedeking and many of his customers often dress like they are going to a concert, on a boat. The vibes are not just casual; they define the word laidback. 

The Mango doubles as a concert venue. Though it only seats 50 for music, it attracts a lot of seriously cool national talent. Jon Justice, Stephen Kellogg, Ryan Montbleau, Lipbone Redding, Jonah Smith, Carrie Rodriguez, Honey Island Swamp Band, and California Honey Drops are among the acts to have played Mango in between stops on national tours. They all have returned for encores. 

Guy Fieri, the most laidback of celebrity chefs, has visited more than once, too, with cameras, to feature Mango on his show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Wedeking is so laidback that, when the show first came to Mango, he had no idea what it was. He never watches television. Never.

When Mango began, Des Moines had just two barbecues — Big Daddy’s and Battles. BBQ had not yet been fast tracked with gas-driven smokers and wood pellets. It was purely fueled by hard wood. Mango’s oven was designed for portability. 

“I am licensed to officiate weddings. I can perform a marriage if I am retained to cater the reception. I tow my smoker and a couple grills, mostly to Kentucky. I have catered weddings at Woodford Reserve distillery (Kentucky Derby sponsor). I am a serious advocate for bourbon. That has led to many happy connections.”  

Because Wedeking came from Ocala and loves New Orleans, much of the non Q is Southern, Cajun and Creole. Red beans and rice are meaty. Shrimp are served with grits or dirty rice. Yellowtail is grilled and served with mango salsa, chicken Creole with cornbread. Collard greens and roasted apples are options with all dishes. 

Invention is represented by catfish cakes. They are, of course, smoked and then molded into cakes that are fried. White chocolate bread pudding, with mango sauce, stars on the dessert menu, with chocolate cake, Grandma Irene’s red hot, and cinnamon apple pie. Bellinis are made with mango nectar and margaritas can be, too.  

Wedeking poured his heart out on Facebook while attending his sister’s death bed in Florida. Six months later, Jonah Smith turned that into his song “Ocala.” That made the front page of the Washington Post, as an extraordinary Christmas present. Now, it’s being covered by famous singers. Bonnie Raitt even called Jonah when she heard the song and asked for the back story.

Smith called Wedeking recently from Georgia. 

“He had just played a concert in a loud bar. One customer thanked him and apologized for the crowd. He told Jonah that he heard about a guy in Des Moines who threatens to throw people out if they talk during a performance. Jonah says, ‘His name is Mike, and his place is Flying Mango. If you get a chance, go there.’ ”

Wedeking appreciates the attention but does not take it for granted.  

“I am so humbled by the number of great relationships my little barbecue has fostered,” he said.  

 

Roberta Green and Howard Ahmanson

Hotel Pattee

Hotel Pattee host Lopso, a survivor of stupid human violence,  embodies the spirit of Perry and the hotel

The Hotel Pattee held its grand opening May 29, 1913, with a banquet for 375 guests. Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson added the hotel to an architectural resume that included much of early 20th century Des Moines’ most magnificent buildings. Carnegie steel was imported from Pittsburgh, and an Italian marble staircase was installed. That staircase is the only original furnishing still in play today.

At the time, the hotel fronted a railroad station on one side and a barn, livestock stable and blacksmith shop on the other. Saturday night dances in the ballroom were the main attraction to the Perry community. In 1930, the hotel hired Aunt Rachel Carpenter to operate a café in the hotel with the same fine service as her locally famous Waffle House café. 

In 1935, the hotel reopened after a renovation with sugar-glazed jelly omelettes and baked “milk fed chickens.” Five ownership changes and six remodels later, the hotel was purchased by Howard and Roberta Green Ahmanson in 1993. Roberta was a Perry native. They closed it for the first time in 82 years and began a complete renovation. 

Two years later, it reopened in resplendent detail. Each room was unique and themed — an Iowa variation on London’s legendary Savoy Hotel. Museum level art was installed. Top Iowa artists and craftspeople designed rooms, a library, conference hall, ballroom, lobby, restaurant, bar, fireplaces and a bowling alley. I was told at that time that the imported mahogany panels alone cost more than the original hotel. After exploding their budget, the Ahmansons closed the hotel on New Years Eve 2006. 

Five additional ownership changes later, Perry Industries, Inc. and Perry Economic Development, Inc. purchased the Hotel Pattee in partnership with the City of Perry. Today, it is a magnet, drawing visitors to Perry’s exemplary small town America living history. 

One volunteer lobby host, Lopso, greets visitors with the spirit of Perry. Despite losing a leg to senseless human violence, Lopso carries on with indomitable sweetness.

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Summer Stir - July 2024