First Time to the Iowa State Fair – Des Moines, Iowa
The middle of the United States, the heartland. We had the best time exploring this part of the country on our storm chasing trip. We saw our tornadoes in the state of Iowa. So how did we end up back there?
On a plane ride back from somewhere, Kevin was reading David Foster Wallace compilation of articles, this one titled “Getting away from already being pretty much away from it all” that focused on the author’s time covering the Illinois State Fair. After Kevin completed it, he turned and exclaimed “let’s go to a state fair!” It does not take much convincing for me to travel somewhere new. After a bit of research, Iowa was the place to be for a state fair as one of the largest state fair in the country with the slogan “Nothing compares to the Iowa State Fair” (cue song “Nothing Compares” Prince, popularized by Sinead O’Connor, favorite version by Chris Cornell, on repeat).
The first Iowa State Fair was held in 1854. Since it’s beginning (and minus the wartime years from 1942-1945), the fair has only been canceled five times. Currently, it is the state fair with the largest agricultural exposition and largest fair foods department with nearly 900 classes and hundreds of individual entries. This year, 1,130,260 people attended the fair in the ten day span. The day we attended- the first Saturday of the fair- a grand total of 116,583 people attended.
Before we left, we downloaded the Iowa State Fair App that had all the information we needed to plan our day. The app lists the schedule of all the events throughout the fair and allows events to be added to a personal agenda. Also included in the app was a map, food and drink finder, the ability to purchase tickets for entertainment, and interactive features such as voting in contests.
We took the last flight out on Friday so we got into our Airbnb past midnight and went right to sleep for a full day ahead of us.
Since we only had one day at the fair, we insisted on making it a full day and arrived to the gate entrance at 8:30AM (the grounds open at 7AM). While parking was not a concern for our driver, he did not pass up the opportunity to show us Iowa capitalism. As we got closer to the park, the streets were lined with homeowners waving canes to attract drivers to their property to make some cash. Most houses were advertising $10 for a spot on the grass while others increased to $12 but threw in a bottle of water or pop- quiet the incentive!
We walked through the fair entrance and grabbed maps to orient ourselves. Instantly amazed by the expansive sprawl that encompassed the fair, it was hard to pick a direction to start. When we saw a tractor pulled tram that made six stops around the fairground, we knew one day may not be enough to cover everything at the Iowa State Fair.
Many of the food booths were still preparing around 9AM so our breakfast offerings were limited and the ones that were open- such as the cinnamon bun booth (oh those smells!)- had extensive lines.
Kevin found a booth serving coffee but it was the other options advertised that caught our attention- the Raging Bull and the description for Italian Cookies.
Still searching for a breakfast option, we got a good preview of what was to come such as freshly made cookies shoved into a bucket for your enjoyment and easy transport of any leftovers to speak of, every variation of a corn dog you can imagine and some you can’t imagine, and barbecue every which way including burnt ends and bacon wrapped ribs.
Our approach to food was to avoid (unless good reason) big or heavy items and to split everything to maximize our stomach capacity and try as many things as possible.
Finally spotting a booth open for breakfast with a reasonable line, we approached our first booth for lamb specialities. We ordered lamb sausage, egg, and cheese on a biscuit and it was a delightful snack for breakfast.
Finding ourselves on the far side of the fair, we decided to jump into the various livestock barns. We entered the Swine Barn full of enormous pigs all getting weighed for title of heaviest pig. While we did not witness a best in show styled competition for the pigs, I am sure one exists since there were many advertisements for famous pigs and how you can obtain their semen!
Next to this was the Cattle Barn where the best in show was in full swing. Each animal was getting “dolled up” for their presentation with their hair styled as if it was a poodle.
Not to mention this champion bull weighing in at over 3,000 pounds!
And finally some cuddles!
Our favorite part of the livestock barns was the Avenue of Breeds where over 100 different breeds of cattle, cow, goats, sheep, pigs, and more were accompanied by a write up about the breed, place of origence and other facts.
The next stop was the agriculture building and we were immediately met with rows of produce- apples and other fruit arrangements, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, an entire wall of corn, all competing for best in class.
We noticed a long line in the middle of the building and knew it could only be for one thing- the Butter Cow. A tradition dating back to 1911, the Butter Cow has become a symbol of the Iowa State Fair. Standing at 5 1/2 foot high and 8 foot long, over 600 pounds of butter create the cow.
While in line for the Butter Cow, we observed several other competitions around us- numerous floral arrangements, rice art, roses and every type of flower in between. Even a weed identification contest!
An educational booth on the importance and nutritional value of eggs was also handing out free hard boiled eggs on a stick with the option of sprinkling a salt based seasoning. I got my egg on a stick from Senator Joni Ernst.
Moving up to the second floor was like jumping into a TV infomercial- various booths trying to sell their latest invention that you don’t know how you lived without (but still do!). We did enjoy a pure maple syrup tasting and also indulged in iced honey lemonade from the bee farm.
We emerged from the agriculture building with the Pork Tent straight ahead. It was about time for another food item so we made our way to the back of the booth for one of the finalists for Best New Food Item of 2018- brown sugar pork belly… on a stick (of course)!
It was sweet. It was salty, It was bursting with fatty goodness, but not to a fault where it was gross. It was perfection on a stick.
Reviewing the State Fair app to pick our shows for the day, the sheep shearing competition was getting ready to start at 11:30AM so we made our way to the Sheep Barn. When we arrived, there was already a crowd of several people deep surrounding the stage. We had to walk around to the other side behind the stage to even get a glance at the action!
The contest began and the motions went like this- four sheep were lined up behind a door that was opened by the shearers. When the shearer was ready, he grabbed the sheep and held it so the front feet were above the head so the sheep was in a sitting position which is most comfortable and relaxing for the sheep. This also lowers the risk of the shearer getting wacked in the face with a rogue foot. When the shearing was complete, the naked sheep was lead to a door below the stage for judge and was then led to the sheep quarters. The process was quick with the winners lapping by at least a sheep. And several heats occurred to declare a winner. I think the commentator was our highlight as equal parts dry and enthusiastic- passionate about the art of sheep shearing and an international champion!
I had my eye on this booth since we pasted it earlier in the morning- the chocolate covered booth. Everything is dipped on demand. We jumped in and got chocolate covered (edible) cookie dough and chocolate covered banana. The cookie dough was so good- filled with huge chocolate chunks!
On our way to Pioneer Hall, we passed yet another competition (see a trend?) for chainsaw carving. Some beautifully crafted wood sculptures surrounded the area.
Pioneer Hall was the fair home to many musical acts ongoing throughout the day. A lap around the hall revealed numerous display cases filled with items for the antique competition- from china to toys- it was amazing how many categories there were. Also showcased was an active pottery, forging, and spinning yard section where you can watch craftsmen work.
We were ready for some fiddles amd 1PM marked the start of the Fiddle and Mandolin competition. The Mandolin players went first. We watched the first contestant and considered leaving until the fiddlers performed, but the next performer was great. And then the next was incredible! The harmonious sounds the mandolin creates is so amazing and that showed when the player makes use of the wide range the instrument allows.
After the mandolin players finished and the obvious winner was crowned, we were disappointed when the MC announced that concluded the competition! I do not know what we missed for the fiddles but the mandolins proved to be a great alternative.
The search was on for our next food item and we all recalled passing garlic cheese curds towards the entrance of the fair. On our way, we stopped into a historically preserved barber shop and a telephone museum.
We also passed the Soap Box and while this year was not very politically charged for campaigning, we did catch a few people declaring to the crowd on the soap box.
The garlic cheese curds were worth the walk. Deep fried cheese curds season with an abundance of garlic in every bite.
Since the three of us split the one portion, we continued on for more unique food items. We felt like it was only right to have a corn dog but with so many stands with this, we wanted something different. And then it appeared- shrimp corn dog… on a stick of course!
Winner of the Best New Food Award 2013, it definitely hit the spot!
Our friends from Chicago meet us at the fair and our first stop was the Iowa Craft Beer Tent. The brew scene is very active in Iowa and this section of the fair demonstrated that.
Kevin had read about Bauder’s Homemade Ice Cream and the line had been long every time we passed it. This time, the line was quiet short so we jumped in and split two scoops of chocolate royale- so creamy and rich.
When we returned to the group, they also grew by a snack- ribbon fries!
Kind of a misnomer since they are not technically fries and more resemble potato chips. There must have been three potatoes with of spiralized goodness.
After another lap around the agriculture building, we snuck off to the Pork Tent for a second round of brown sugar pork belly on a stick. Just as good as the first time.
Upon a hill was the Iowa State Fair Museum that introduced visitors to the history of the fair, educated on the famous performers that hit the stages at night, and displayed the advertising posters from over the years.
There was a room upstairs that solidified our observation that Iowa loves to judges everything- there isn’t anything they can’t turn into a competition. Back when the polio epidemic was wrapping up, the fair used to dub the fair’s Healthiest Baby in a contest for perfect child. A number of categories were judged to determine the winner and it was always published in the paper.
There were many things we missed at the fair, including the three areas for attractions, but we decided to change the pace and explore downtown Des Moines. After nine hours at the fair, we said goodbye to the Iowa State Fair.
Downtown Des Monies was definitely smaller than anticipated, but we found Java Joes to relax until our reservation for dinner arrived.
Roca Wine Bar was able to accommodate our large party of seven and after we all ordered drinks (one even came with a piece of bacon marinating in the drink) we opted for several rounds of small plates including salmon bruschetta, crab coquette, charred brussels sprouts, scallops over sweet corn salad, ribeye skewers, fish tacos, ratatouille, seared tuna, and fried green beans. This was awesome!
Flight back home at 7AM- Quite a whirlwind weekend!
There is nothing like the Iowa State Fair in the northeast- I guess you could say… nothing compares. And while we got the blank stare when asked “why are you here” from everyone that spotted a northeast accent, it was easy for us. We thrive on broaden our experiences and trying new things. It was definitely worth the weekend adventure to explore a new part of the country and immerse ourselves in someone else’s traditions. Not to mention that pork belly on a stick was well worth the trip!
Thank you Iowa State Fair!