Iowa State Fair


I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here, but I perceived it as a cow beauty pageant of sorts. And aren’t they handsome!

It was a day of contrasts.

One moment, I’m eating vegan “taco crumbles”, a mix of mushrooms, beans, and millet. My plate, mostly lettuce, is drizzled with cashew “sour cream”. The next, I’m devouring deep-fried Oreos and chasing mozzarella sticks with cheese on a stick.

What – when – where – why – how did this happen?

Des Moines, Iowa.

We made a 2 hour drive to Iowa’s capitol from Cedar Falls to see one of the Midwest’s grandest public spectacles: the Iowa State Fair It was a monotonous drive on unnervingly straight roads, the curves engineered not so much out of necessity, but to keep drivers awake. And, occasionally, it smelled like shit. Iowa farmers, apparently, aren’t shy about fertilizing.

Of course, they never mention that in any of the country songs. “I like pickup trucks, goin’ to church, beer, a good girl and roads that smell like horse shit!” Nope. That last bit is, by rule, always omitted. Instead, we’re shoveled more lies about the clean country air, or daisy dukes.

But I kid. I love Iowa.


A typical Iowa road. Not fun when it’s late and you’re tired. (Photo by the inimitable Doug Kerr.)

Now, in Cedar Falls, there aren’t any vegetarian restaurants, let alone a vegan restaurant. The best you’re getting is tofu or a black bean burger, and black bean burgers are like the vegetarian equivalent of leisure suits. Sure, there was a time when black bean burgers made vegetarians feel free and liberated. That time has unfortunately passed and vegetarians have moved on permanently.

So naturally, we had to hit up a vegan eatery in Des Moines. Molly is a staunch vegetarian, and I don’t mind fake meat. In fact, I was a vegetarian first, before denouncing the cause. I’m still against eating meat every day. Believe it or not, it’s OK, occasionally good, to eat a meal without meat.

Although that doesn’t stop New World Cafe – tucked away inconspicuously in an industrialized corner of town – from offering up a smörgåsbord of imitation meats and dairy products. What can I say? Old culinary habits die hard. That said, the taco salad was tasty, as was Molly’s breakfast bowl, with mushroom quinoa crumbles, mushroom miso gravy, and cashew vegetable sauce. The substitutes worked well.

What was barf worthy was New World Café’s branding.

The café has a “volunteer program”, in which you work for free in exchange for food, discounts, and experience. Yes, that’s right. It’s a restaurant that hires unpaid interns and covers up its exploitation with anti-corporate art. Hey, New World Cafe – you might hate Walmart, but at least Walmart pays all of its employees in cold, hard cash. Is there a better example of our misguided youth culture than this?

I doubt it.


Don’t trust people that try too hard to achieve an image. There has to be a reason why they need all that window dressing.

Our stomachs half full from the light, healthy fare, it was time for the Iowa State Fair. We parked about a mile away on Grand Avenue in an old working class neighborhood with squat houses and narrow streets because we’re fucking cheapskates. Twice I was almost hit by a car while crossing the street at a stop sign. Drivers had no respect for the right of way of pedestrians.

The next day, I read in the Des Moines Register that a cop directing traffic was hit on the corner of Grand and 30th. Sounds about right. Luckily the officer was OK, and life moves on.


“Are you gonna bring me back a corn dog?” The officer on the right asked a couple (not in the picture) waiting to cross. They laugh. “I’m just kidding. I don’t actually care for corn dogs. Donuts! The donuts in there are good. Think you could bring me back a couple?” Hey, at least he owns up to it.

The big show was the Iowa State Fair, held since 1854, and it didn’t disappoint. For $11, there was a giant cow made out of butter; humongous pumpkins; a 3 ton bull; aquariums with fish from the Mississippi River; cowboy boots; live bands; rides; a giant concourse; magnificent exhibit halls with traditional urban American architecture; auctions; Clydesdale horses: and (drum roll, please)… fried food. Lots of fuckin’ fried food.

Legend has it that there was even a year (or two) when you could buy fried butter. Alas, no more.

Don’t fret, however. They’re still dipping Oreos, Twinkies, cheese, and almost anything else not moving into batter and frying it into oblivion. It’s insanely unhealthy, a decadent celebration of runaway American obesity. And yet people love it, eat it up with a sloppy abandon. A deep-fried Oreo has about double or triple the calories of a regular Oreo. Still, fairgoers lined up at the red, white, and blue stand like it was a communion wafer. The cashier looked miserable.


For the record, I may have been the only male at the Iowa State Fair wearing skinny jeans. Don’t judge me.

“I can’t decide,” I said aloud. “Oreos or Twinkies?”

A perky brunette in line in front of me immediately turned around.

“Get the Oreos. You won’t regret it. The Oreo melts inside the batter.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Oreos it is.”

“Yeah, and they sprinkle powdered sugar on it. Trust me, it’s really good.”

“I was thinking that’s what it needed. Thanks! My decision is made.”

How was it? It was… well… it was good. Nirvana in my mouth good? Instant orgasm good? No. It’s like an especially greasy Oreo cake that congeals into a thick, immovable mass in your stomach. Not that I wouldn’t eat one or three if you put a plate of ’em in front of me. To tell you the truth, if I was stoned and you locked me in a warehouse stocked with deep-fried Oreos, I’d just resign myself to weighing 1,000 pounds. I’d die on the toilet Elvis Presley-style.


Worth dying for? Maybe.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. Standing in the towering shadow of a 25 foot tall replica of the father and daughter (or is it husband and wife?) from Grant Wood’s American Gothic – inspired by a house in Eldon, Iowa – I couldn’t help but imagine the Wood’s staid farmer scowling at the indulgent, fatty cuisine. Until he tried a deep-fried Oreo, that is, and broke out into a Cheshire grin.


10 thoughts on “Iowa State Fair

  1. I really enjoy your use of language and writing style.

    “…black bean burgers are like the vegetarian equivalent of leisure suits”—an excellent observation and no doubt based on personal experience.

    “…fairgoers lined up at the red, white, and blue stand like it was a communion wafer”—a great image is conjured up by this phrase. I can feel the anticipation of the people in line.

    Have fun in Iowa and please keep writing.

  2. Thanks, as always. Though, in retrospect, the “like” in the first example was unnecessary. But hey, I write these things fast. Maybe it works in a conversational way.

    I’ve been using an app called Field Trip for Android/iOS lately, which points out interesting historical locations and restaurants as you walk around town and provides descriptions and archival images of those places. Curious, I checked out the blogs of their content partners – a hodgepodge of local and national writers – and I couldn’t help but think that those people aren’t doing THAT much better of a job than me. I feel like I should have more readers, but all I care about is reading, writing, and honing my insights to a razor sharp point. I’m not doing the networking I’m supposed to.

    Guess I have to get my butt in gear.

  3. George,

    Thanks for the tip about the Field Trip app. I downloaded it and will give it a try.

    How does one get to be a contributor to their database? It might be an opening for you—your reviews are entertaining and informative.

    Keep at it,

  4. I like the concept of field trip but I wonder if there is some way to expand my range on the map so that more than just one historical building pops up in my area. Also, thanks for the great read as always.

  5. Thanks for the compliment!

    I know that sometimes, Field Trip just doesn’t have much content for certain areas. Where I’m living now, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, it only has one building listed. But if I go to the neighboring town of Waterloo, the dots pop up like acne.

  6. I went for a long bike ride today (in Maine) and managed to pick up a few more hits. Maybe its a good thing that you actually have to physically move instead of just stare at a screen. Why even go if you already know all about it, right? Keep up the good work!

  7. “Don’t trust people that try too hard to achieve an image. There has to be a reason why they need all that window dressing.”

    While I mostly agree with this, working for quality food instead of “cold hard cash” isn’t altogether a terrible concept. Money isn’t always the best form of currency.

    On another note, I recently attended a county fair in Lincoln, Illinois. There were several hot air balloons tied down by pick up trucks that were giving passengers with deep fried Twinkies 40 foot high balloon rides. I stood on top of my can of Bud Light and was able to see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles.

  8. I see your point about working for food, but to me the whole arrangement just strikes me as the restaurant fishing for the equivalent of free interns. Having worked as a free intern myself, I really think it’s an unfair arrangement. I gave that company months of good work for zero compensation. Bah, humbug.

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