Top 10 Reasons To Love the Iowa State Fair

Our state fair is a great fair, acclaimed in book, movies, and song. As a 4-H member I yearned to go. Alas, that desire was unfulfilled. Now that I live within four miles of the main gate, though, I never miss the annual extravaganza.

With a nod to David Letterman and the Late Show, and before August slips away, I must share my Top 10 Reasons to Love The Iowa State Fair.

Drumroll please …

Iowa State Fair Goat

Keeping an eye on passers by.

10. Inquisitive goats. And pigs and horses and cows. I love livestock.

9. Joining a queue for no reason other than the possibility of free stuff. Our line led to Mixify – an initiative to help educate teens about the importance of balancing calorie intake with activity. I explained how I keep moving and walked away with a t-shirt and a frisbee.

8. Cattle Judging. Watching little kids manhandle a 1,000 pound steer around the arena is a hoot. “Just don’t let go,” is the advice one kid gave the new Drake University President Marty Martin before the celebrity steer show. Good, simple advice; I like that.

Iowa State Fair Giant Pumpkin

The winner weighed in at 1,235 pounds.

7. Giant things – Random things – Butter things – pumpkins, tomatoes, bull, boar – a hot wheels race on the grand concourse – the butter cow, joined this year by a tribute to Monopoly. It’s all good.

6. Food on a Stick – The Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb, a bacon-wrapped, ground brisket/jalapeno/cheese-filled concoction earned the public’s favorite new food-on-a-stick award, so of course we tried it. The smoked brisket mac n cheese is better. IMHO.

5. Quilts – The needlework is amazing. My friend Sheryl entered five projects and took ribbons on four. My sister-in-law Anita won a blue ribbon. These are talented folks.

4. Ice Cream. When one massive scoop costs $4 and a second massive scoop costs only $1 more, you can imagine what we chose. Even though that’s more ice cream than I eat in a normal week. And I eat ice cream every day.

Iowa State Fair - Chia Cow

Just the thing for a dairy farmer’s daughter.

3. Peanut Brittle Judging. My first experience at food judging provided 17 entries –  enough to appreciate the range of Iowa candy maker creativity – and satisfy a sweet tooth.

2. A Chia Cow. I want one.

1. I avoided every single presidential candidate. Given the number of candidates and the fact that every one of them wants to see the butter cow and flip a pork chop and hold forth from a hay bale, that’s no small feat.

There you have it my friends – The Iowa State Fair. I can’t wait for next year.

What are your favorite things to do at the fair?

On the other side of the table – Iowa State Fair

With every presentation I made as a 4-H member, getting to the Iowa State Fair was my goal. Each year, I did my best, yet it was never enough to go beyond the county level. The judges always chose someone else, and I was always disappointed. I spent some time railing against the unfairness of the judges, let me tell you.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

As an adult living only four miles from the fairgrounds, the allure of the State Fair remains strong. I’m always eager to attend. A couple of years ago, I entered a quilt and earned a third place ribbon. For once, I was delighted.

It didn’t occur to join the judging ranks myself until this year when Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson announced on FaceBook that he was looking for judges to join him for the new peanut brittle competition.

Peanut brittle is one of my favorite candies. I make it every year. Seemed like those were qualifications enough to judge. I signed up.

When the day rolled around, I was ready. And excited. And hungry.

Seventeen entries greeted us. A respectable number for the first year, and a number we figured two judges could get through in the hour allotted. Volunteers supplied plates, napkins, and damp clothes, along with crackers and water to cleanse our palates. A writer sat beside each judge, to record our comments, tally scores, and keep things moving.

Spectators filled the chairs, leaning forward in anticipation, straining to hear our words, watching our faces as we sampled from each plate. Some hoping, no doubt, to be judged the winner. With their eyes on me, I felt the weight of responsibility.

The task was more challenging than I imagined it would be. Judging is a subjective task, maybe more so when it comes to food. The score sheet with it’s weighted percentages for Taste, Texture, and the nebulous Other Considerations gave some structure to the process. But even with that, there were so many reasons to have different opinions.

  • Was the best peanut brittle the one that was most like the recipe I make and love dearly?
  • Was it one of those with unexpected ingredients, like dried Kalamata olives or cayenne pepper and mustard or the perennial State Fair favorite bacon?
  • Or one of those stretched so thin with forks you could almost see through the brittle?
Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

As it turns out, 17 entries is a lot to judge in only one hour. One little taste of an entry, savor the flavor, consider the texture, note whether it stuck to my teeth, take into account how it was presented. Make comments. Assign scores. Eat a soda cracker. Drink water. On to the next entry.

After we evaluated each salty/sweet brittle individually, Kyle and I went behind the curtain to discuss and decide on the final winners. We emerged with three ribbon winners and an honorable mention. The crowd applauded the results. The blue ribbon winners cheered.

Judging peanut brittle taught me a lot. Being a judge is tough. You want to be fair, you want to reward the best, but best is relative. I can be more empathetic with the judges that kept me out of the State Fair all those years ago. I still don’t like it, but I empathize with their challenge. And I empathize with those who entered full of anticipation and didn’t win. Judging can be as bitter sweet as entering.

In case you’re wondering, we awarded the blue ribbon to a wonderful peanut brittle that included a hint of coconut and was served up in a little red bucket with tissue paper. I’ll be trying that secret ingredient myself come the holidays.

What is it about BIG?

The Biggest Pumpkin – Iowa State Fair 2012

Big things fascinate me. Maybe that’s true of most of us. The biggest anything is almost always a draw. At the Iowa State Fair, the Biggest (fill in the blank) will always have a line of people waiting to see or take pictures.

After ogling big tomatoes and big horses and big pumpkins at the Fair, my husband and I took a drive to western Iowa last week. The primary goal of this trip was to see in person all the things in that part of the state that I’d written about for The Iowan magazine but had not yet seen. Along the way we saw some things we hadn’t expected to see. Some really BIG things.

Albert the Bull – Audubon, Iowa

Albert the Bull, for instance. Albert is the biggest bull in the world, standing 30 ft. tall, weighing 45 tons, requiring 65 gallons of paint to cover. Definitely bigger than the Big Bull at the State Fair. Albert draws people to Audubon, just north of I-80

The 50-ft. tall Molecule Man is visible from both I-80 and I-29 in Council Bluffs. The 33,000 lb. sculpture by artist Jonathan Borofsky is part of an ambitious public art project transforming the Council Bluffs landscape. There are only three other Molecule Man sculptures in the world and they stand in Berlin, Germany, Los Angeles, CA, and Yorkshire, England. I guess I don’t know if these are the Biggest Men in the world, but they have to be right up there. Certainly the biggest men in Iowa.

Molecule Man – Council Bluffs, Iowa

We saw other big things on this trip. The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, for instance. It is not the biggest bridge, but it is the longest pedestrian bridge, a 3,000 ft. span, across the Missouri River, and connecting two states – Iowa and Nebraska. Impressive. And fun to walk across.

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge – Council Bluffs & Omaha

Most often we stand there, shaking our heads in amazement and asking, “How’d they do that?”  The making and installing of these works of art – whether pumpkin or bull or stainless steel men or bridges – are fascinating stories. Worth a drive. Worth a picture. Great for tourism.

We’re heading west later this year and plan to see more really big things both man made and nature made, including the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.

We expect to be amazed.

Don’t overlook the small stuff.

The Iowa State Fair wrapped up on Sunday. In the course of 11 days, contestants participated in 11,278 events, competing in everything from cattle to cup cakes, jazz to jam, dressage to desserts. Keeping it all straight and just as important, on the up and up, is no easy task. A friend and I learned that when we sat in on the judging of the “I have a secret ingredient” competition.

Iron Chef has nothing on these competitors

The gist of this contest is that competitors bring everything they need to make a main dish meal on the spot. Before they begin, they’re presented with a surprise ingredient they must incorporate into their dish. In this case, a bell pepper. But as it turns out, the bell pepper would be the least of their challenges.

There were four competitors. Two of the women were the two who had taken first and second in this event last year. These women were calm, confident, and seldom smiled. The third woman was a student in the culinary arts program at Des Moines Area Community College–our favorite only because we talked to her in advance of the event. The fourth competitor, a man, arrived moments before the competition began, pulling a cooler on wheels and juggling several additional bags of utensils and ingredients.

As the competition unfolded, we provided our own running commentary of each participant’s effort. We were impressed that our student was not flustered by the fact that the fair-supplied electric skillet didn’t work. We were astounded at the quantity of ingredients the man chopped and diced. We wondered when, if ever, he’d get around to actually cooking something. The two seasoned competitors completed cooking and plated their dishes (an Hawaiian pork chop with rice and a lamb with Feta cheese tostada) before he even put patties in the skillet.

By the time the judge had evaluated the first two entries, our student was ready to go. Except she wasn’t aware she had to provide a written copy of her recipe. So she sat and wrote it while her shrimp congealed in a cooling Alfredo sauce. The man was still chopping ingredients and from time to time molding everything together in his hands. My friend questioned whether she wanted anyone handling her food that much.

Finally, our student’s dish was evaluated. Finally the man actually cooked what turned out to be buffalo sliders. Finally, he arranged everything on a plate, topped one slider with a little paper umbrella for good measure and presented it to the judges. Only to realize he hadn’t written down his recipe either. At least all was equal. His entree was cold before the judge tasted it, too.

Finally, the judge was ready to announce her decision. Fourth place to our student. Third and second to the other women. Before the judge could walk to the end of the table to award first prize to the man and his buffalo sliders, the seasoned competitors filed a protest. Much hushed discussion by the judges. A senior fair official was called in. More hushed discussions.

Finally, an explanation and a decision. The rules clearly stated that everything on the plate must be edible. The man’s paper umbrella was not. Therefore he could not win. Ribbons were retrieved. Awards re-presented. Last year’s winners were this year’s winners. Our student took third. The man went home with an honorable mention.

Proving at the very least that fair competitions today are every bit as serious as they were when Aunt Bee entered her infamous kerosene dill pickles in the Mayberry Fair. Proving once again that it is often the little things that undo us. Proving as well that it is not wise to mess with people who know the rules by heart!