20 August 2007
Our state fair is a great state fair...
Saturday, I decided to go with some friends to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines to see what all the fuss is about. For those of you who aren't familiar with the tradition, Iowa has one of the biggest fairs in the country, and its fair is the one the musical State Fair is based on. One of the most famous things about the fair is the butter sculptures, which are made every year by a woman from the same family. The woman who does the sculptures now is the third generation, and I'm pretty impressed. Every year there is a butter cow, but there's also a theme and butter sculptures that relate to that theme are displayed, with the cow, in a cold glass case in the Agriculture Building. I first heard about this phenomenon on an episode of West Wing, where the characters were visiting Iowa during the campaign and raving about the butter Last Supper. This year, the theme was Harry Potter, and so here you see Harry and his owl Hedwig, the butter cow wearing Harry's glasses, Harry's trunk for Hogwarts, and the portrait of the Fat Lady (with the Golden Snitch half-visible in the upper right.)
Prizes are a big deal at the fair. Though maybe they're not quite like the dramatic scene from State Fair with the mincemeat and sour pickles competitions, we watched an auction where a prize goat went for $1300! Here is a first prize squash, which I thought was a pumpkin. The little girl standing next to it gives a good idea of the size by comparison. And I thought my mom's organic veggies were big!
I've always been a big fan of fair food. I remember when I was a little girl at the North Carolina State Fair, and every year I insisted on getting cotton candy and a candy apple. When I was older, I discovered the joys of funnel cake and fried oreos. I always thought my dad was kind of lame for always getting corn on the cob (who eats healthy food at the fair?) but this year I was sorry I couldn't find any, being in Iowa and all. Instead, I started with a Bloomin' Onion, a bit pricey at $7 but absolutely delicious. The batter was first rate, and though the dipping sauce was ranch rather than horseradish sauce, I managed to adapt pretty well. The other dipping choices were ketchup and nacho cheese, which may tell you something about Iowa.
Of course, a lot of the fair food options were meaty, and so my friends decided that lunch in the pork tent would be a good idea. I tagged along and sat with them, and on the way discovered this amusing sign. I also found out that when someone asks for pickles with their barbeque sandwich, they get a shitload of pickles (pictured). I highly approved of the people walking around the tent, refilling water cups. Though initially fairgoers could not bring their own water into the fair, due to the heat the fair officials decided to lift that ban, and also to make water in some places free. Good for them!
The next food stop was at the Bauder ice cream booth, where I tried this Peppermint Bar, listed as a State Fair favourite. The bar was made up of peppermint ice cream, chocolate syrup, and crushed Oreo cookies, and it was good if not spectacular. According to my friend Lindsay, and Des Moines native, Bauder Pharmacy is a local classic, and has the best ice cream in Des Moines. So far, I prefer Danes and Whitey's in Iowa City, but I'd have to try some more flavours to make up my mind.
My friends also tried out some snack foods, and you can see Lindsay here sampling the fried Snickers bar. A bit like the English fried Mars bar, this fair treat is made by swirling the candy bar, which is packaged already on a stick, in batter, and then frying it in a deep fat fryer designed specifically for the purpose. I tried a bite, and found it quite delicious. The batter is sweet and crispy on the outside, and the chocolate gets all melty underneath. Yum!
This photo is a perfect advertisement for vegetarianism, I think. Poor Fleming sampled a pickle dog (a pickle and cream cheese wrapped in pastrami) and she was not impressed. As you can see in the above photo, she had to wash it down with a cherry sno cone, which was much tastier. Fleming is of the opinion that "Red Dye 40 makes everything better!" and she's considering releasing her own line of red-only sno cones. We brainstormed some flavours—rhubarb, beet, tomato, cinnamon, and roasted red pepper were only a few suggestions. What do you think?
Though we didn't get to try all the food the fair had to offer, it was overall a success. I was especially amused by some of the signs for the food I didn't try, such as this Cajun Cheese on a Stick stand, and the particularly dubious "delicious" Mexican Food establishment. Another clever use of quotation marks was the stand selling "Philly" Cheesesteaks. The southern style tea booth made no disclaimer, but I did notice that the word "sweet" was not actually present in the name—very suspicious. As you can see, I do not approve of a stand on the midway selling "Freedom Fries." My friend Matt is a marine, so he's showing his support for the establishment, or something like that. We won't hold it against him.
I hope you've all enjoyed this culinary tour of the fair, and we'll see you next year, same bat time, same bat channel, for more treats and sweets!