How did the Iowa State Fair deep-fried food arms race go nuclear?
Here was the list of new Iowa State Fair foods for 2017. Wochit
Somewhere along the way state fair food ceased to be food only and became the fearsome weaponry of fair marketing campaigns.
We should have realized it six years ago, by the time we were deep-frying nothing but a stick of butter just for the sheer novelty.
We certainly know it now that the Iowa State Fair on Tuesday didn’t just issue a humdrum press release with photos, names and descriptions of its 44 new foods available Aug. 10-20 at the fair. It orchestrated its own version of a glitzy Food Network-style event.
Spotlights! Curtains! Livestream!
And the way local media scrambled to scoop each other on the new food lineup you would have thought we were handling breaking news on the Trump-Russia connections or North Korea nukes. When a preliminary food lineup leaked Monday via a State Fair web page under construction that temporarily was made public, newsrooms pounced into action while fair marketing scrambled to tamp down the fallout.
We journalists weren't faced with ethical decisions on par with WikiLeaks emails, but, still: All of us know that if Iowans care about anything at all, it’s a fistful of portable carbs and sugar bestowed with a goofy name.
But everything turned out fine: The fair's New Food Reveal more or less played out as planned.
So food vendors were paraded onto the stage of the refurbished Youth Inn where no fewer than 11 judges sat ready to fork (if not gnaw) into the Frankenstein creations and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 for taste, presentation, value and creativity.
Fair officials had winnowed down the complete field of 44 to a manageable pool of 10 to be judged by what passes for fair celebrities (including yours truly) to determine a top three for fairgoers to vote on. (In the end only nine were judged when Campfire Cones was a no-show.)
I sat on stage between two jovial Eds: meteorologist Ed Wilson of WHO-HD and country radio DJ Eddie Hatfield of 92.5 FM Nash Icon. Hatfield is such a rabid fan of our 11-day mass summer reunion that he makes me look like a fair hater.
Wilson said that after Tuesday's judging duties he may want to join me next week on The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — providing I find an adult-size Burley bike trailer to pull him.
My new food writer colleague Brian Taylor Carlson would have been the better judge considering his finer palate. But in the end there was little expertise necessary to assess, say, a pork leg so thick and hefty (about 2 pounds) that had I hurled it into the crowd of about 75 onlookers, I would have given somebody a concussion.
This is our new media landscape: The fair started publishing its own cookbooks in 1983. This year it began to livestream its own new food contest. It's the inevitable evolution of a world in which chefs are our new rock stars and fair food now has all the subtlety of a Kiss concert.
Just ask State Fair vendor Connie Boesen, who didn’t win this year with her Apple Taco creation but knows full well how grotesque calories can become a megaphone. When she unleashed apple pie on a stick two years ago at the height of the Iowa caucus frenzy, she and her Applelicious stand ended up in the New York Times and on CNN.
“My friend who now lives in Portland was like, ‘Who’s your publicist?’” she said.
Credit our State Fair for effectively defending its deep-fried turf.
Minnesota struck early in the season. Our chief rival superpower in fried fair food unveiled 31 new foods nearly a month ago.
The Bacon Fluffernutter (a grilled cinnamon bun sandwich with a bacon, peanut butter and marshmallow cream filling) or the Duck Bacon Wontons might have cowed lesser fairs. (Minnesota, however, also weathered its share of controversy when a honey-smoked salmon sandwich on pumpernickel, named the Swindler Sandwich, inadvertently struck anti-Semitic tones and quickly was renamed the Swing-Dance Sandwich.)
Wisconsin supposedly has 68 new foods, from Deep-Fried Bacon-Wrapped Olives On-a-Stick to SPAM Fries. (Wait: Shouldn’t the SPAM be in Minnesota?)
New Jersey’s State Fair Meadowlands earlier this month featured a misguided, gimmicky deep-fried bubblegum. (Did Gov. Chris Christie approve? To be clear, this shouldn't be confused with the New Jersey State Fair that begins Aug. 4.)
Nebraska (Aug. 24-Sept. 5) won’t announce its new foods until Aug. 7. But nobody cares about Nebraska.
To be fair, Iowa does seem to be padding its own new foods list, which for instance includes a flurry what seem like similar hamburgers all from the same vendor.
In the contest I was sort of pulling for the Bruschetta Sundae, nicknamed “Mt. Vesuvius.” It was an elegant, beautifully plated vegetarian trio of spreads on crisp bread that included everything from grapes to pine nuts, all heated in an 800-degree wood oven.
But who am I kidding? When is the last time you heard a fairgoer bragging about strolling the fairgrounds while nibbling on dainty bites of bruschetta?
The “Thanksgiving Ball” was an inventive if inelegantly named creation — all the ingredients of a Thanksgiving dinner crammed into a single ball by West Liberty Foods, complete with a drizzle of sweet cranberry sauce. I could imagine this being served on the International Space Station in November as Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts share a compact holiday meal and shake their heads at all the political posturing causing fits on the small blue ball far below.
No surprise, bulk was the big winner Tuesday, and pork delivered the big hits here in the state where pigs outnumber people, not just fairgoers.
The Pork Almighty was courtesy of veteran fair vendors Stan and Debbie Kranovich of the Steer ‘N Stein: a bowl of pulled pork, fries and a mountain of other ingredients snapped on top of a 32-ounce soda. (Stan discovered the containers in Oklahoma.) Basically it's a glorious portable human trough for $12.
The Big Pork Leg is 2 pounds or so of sheer meat. That classic fair food, the turkey leg, has serious competition.
The dark horse to land among the top three finishers was the Applewood Smoked Chicken BLT Wrap from Mig’s. Creator George Migliero said that he used the same dressing recipe he served at Wakonda Club — a dash of posh country club taste slipped into the fair's deep-fried barrage.
Maybe this fair-food arms race has retained more hidden elegance than I give it credit for.
Even if I may not need to eat again until Aug. 10.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
Editor's note: This column was updated to include clarifying mention of the New Jersey State Fair, which is distinct from State Fair Meadowlands and its deep-fried bubblegum.