Everything to know about Iowa State Fair food
From 2016 - Check out 22 of the new 26 state fair foods you can devour at this year's Iowa State Fair Brian Powers/The Register
Fry it, add some bacon and mount it on a stick. That perennial favorite state fair food is back to fuel you through 11 days of livestock displays, midway rides, high-wattage performers and patriotic parades.
The Iowa State Fair just announced 26 new foods — 11 more than 2015’s record-shattering 15 new dishes — that guests who visit between Aug. 11-21 can sample on a stick, in a cardboard boat or between two slices of bread. The largest single event in the state always ranks high among fairs nationwide in terms of the amount and variety of food found on the 445 acres on the east side of Des Moines.
“We are a food-centric fair,” said Gary Slater, the CEO of the Iowa State Fair. “We try to capitalize on that.”
Only people-watching comes in a close second, followed by entertainment, competitions and livestock shows on the list of reasons to attend the Iowa State Fair.
Here’s everything you need to know about food at the Iowa State Fair but were afraid to ask.
A brief history of Iowa State Fair food
The first Iowa State Fair took place in Fairfield in 1854, but by the next year moved to Des Moines. Even then a concessionaire bought the rights to sell everything from ale and wine to beer and popcorn for $1,050. The Ladies Aid Society earned the right to sell lemonade in the amphitheater.
By 1882, boys sold candy and lemonade in the amphitheater.
Nationwide, snow cones came on the scene in 1919 at the State Fair of Texas, while corn dogs arrived there in 1942. Novelty dishes such as ice cream cones, cotton candy and hamburgers initially showed up at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, while those funnel cakes made their first appearance at Pennsylvania’s Kutztown Folk Festival in the 1950s.
By 2008, novelty foods were going strong at the Iowa State Fair, so much so that more than 11,000 fair-goers packed the Grandstand to set a world record for the number of people simultaneously eating a corn dog.
Fair Squares, the official treat of the state fair, debuted in 2010. Those crunchy and sweet homemade marshmallows sold for $2 each.
More than 50 foods on a stick including chocolate-covered fried ice cream and peanut butter and jelly, as well as a red velvet funnel cake, kept fairgoers full in 2011.
Those funnel cakes came in carrot cake and blue sapphire in 2012, while deep-fried pickle “dawgs” and double bacon corn dogs kept up the novelty factor.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that the Iowa State Fair debuted its fair food contest for concessionaires. That brought a shrimp corn dog, smoothie on a stick, bacon-wrapped riblet on a stick, fried brownie on a stick and coconut dipped in chocolate, with that shrimp corn dog taking home top honors.
The business of fair food
Winners of the Iowa State Fair’s food contest go home with a plaque and a lot of pride. But coming up with a winner doesn’t mean insanity ensues.
“I wouldn’t say we encourage them to come up with something crazy,” Slater said. “In our food contest, we’ve not said bizarre. Just come up with a new food that will entice people to participate.”
Entice it does. Last year, the Iowa State Fair grossed $3.7 million in food and beverage, according to a state fair official.
USA Today readers named the Iowa State Fair the second best in the nation in a poll earlier this year, losing to the Minnesota State Fair but besting the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts, the State Fair of Texas and the Great New York State Fair.
“Minnesota is a half-step more of being a food fair than we are,” Slater said, noting that Iowa has 700,000 fewer people attending. “Texas’ big food contest has been around a long time.”
The Minnesota State Fair features 300 vendors with 500 different foods, while the State Fair of Texas started its Big Tex Choice Awards in 2005 with the Holy Moly Carrot Cake Roly, a variation on the carrot cake, and the smoky bacon margarita winning top honors in 2015.
What is state fair food?
The origin of the word "fair" stems from the Latin word feriae, plural for holiday, and related to the word "feast."
But as far as finding a true definition, even the International Association of Fairs & Expositions doesn’t have one. “It has never occurred to me that ‘state fair foods’ would need a definition, I’ve not seen reference to any sort of definition in any other media, and it is certainly not within our purview to create one,” said Marla Calico, the president and CEO of the association.
Sean Wilson, the owner of Proof, says he thinks of state fair food as circus or carnival food, or food you find at street festivals.
“You find most of the same fare, your funnel cakes, your corn dogs. The only difference and is that some do it better than others,” said Wilson, who habitually goes to the same mini-doughnut stand every time he’s at the fair.
Typically the biggest sellers at the Iowa State Fair include corn dogs, pork tenderloins on a stick, lemonade and funnel cake, according to state fair officials.
Corn dogs take that No. 1 slot, and everyone seems to have a favorite. One might have a different twist of the batter. Some use peanut oil, others a traditional trans fat oil. All of these nuances make each taste a little different. Then there’s the debate over ketchup or mustard.
Ice cream as a whole encompasses one of the biggest categories at the fair.
“We have more ice cream stands on the fairgrounds than any other type of food,” he added. The 45 stands sell everything from soft serve to hard packed to pineapple whip. “People stand in line for that Bauder’s,” referring to the Bauder’s Pharmacy peppermint bars made for the fair.
The Pork Producers alone sell between 5,000 and 6,000 pork chops on a stick every day of the fair, and in 2003, sold their 1 millionth.
Last year, the Iowa State Fair featured nearly 200 different concession stands selling nearly 70 foods on a stick covering everything from pickles and hot bologna to candy bars and chicken lips.
What are the trends?
“Those things that have been trends outside the fair industry tend to become phenomenons here,” Slater said.
About 10 years ago, everything was fried, including Oreos, pickles and candy bars like Paydays and Snickers. That trend, of course, continues.
You could say the bacon trend started about four years ago at the Iowa State Fair, Slater said.
“One of the biggest lines we’ve ever had was for the double bacon corn dog. It had bacon in the batter, bacon in the dog itself and then you rolled it in a cardboard boat with bacon bits on the bottom. It seems like everything new had something with bacon on it. I think you can say that trend continues.”
Campbell's Concessions introduced that oddity back in 2012, and as of last year, it still made the roster of foods on a stick at the Iowa State Fair.
Healthier fare also shows up on the menus at the state fair. This year, the Iowa Turkey Federation introduces the Not Your Mamma’s Taco with its own bed of a golden crispy deep-fried flour tortilla topped with turkey, a homemade veggie slaw and a sweet mango salsa that give this baby crunch, heat and color.
"You could almost classify it as healthy," Slater said.
Gretta Irwin, the executive director and home economist for the turkey federation, says the healthy dish was intentional. The fair board and their families selected the dish for the state fair's People’s Choice Best New Food Contest after tasting six contenders on June 13.
"The comments from the judges were that the flavor was wonderful, the combination of ingredients was exciting and a lot of them came back for seconds," Irwin said.
Three of the 2016 Iowa State Fair's 26 new food options are in contention for this year's People's Choice Best New Food award. The fair kicks off Aug. 11, and the winner will be announced Aug. 16.
What doesn't work here?
Other popular foods at different state fairs don’t take off in Iowa. Take the cream puff, one of the biggest sellers at the Wisconsin State Fair.
“We’ve had cream puffs at the state fair but they didn’t sell like they do in Wisconsin,” Slater said, adding that in Wisconsin, fans can even pick up a half dozen at a drive-thru.
Other dishes can be a one-hit wonder.
“Sometimes they are a little crazy. You can always kind of tell the ones that don’t work. Sometimes they just don’t hit. Some last for a while and some don’t. They’re still fun to try,” Slater said.