Meet Karen, the new Iowa State Fair queen of food contests
Earlier this week the Elwell Family Food Center was silent save for the low hum of motors from the rows of illuminated, shiny chrome refrigerated display cases that sat empty.
And then I spotted her sitting at the desk — the modest 2- by 4½-foot desk at the back of the building sits out in the open without any barrier to the fair chaos. The desk is the hub for nearly 10,000 food entries spread among at least 177 divisions.
Karen McKilligan sat there in the spot that for more than 30 years had been the throne for her predecessor, Arlette Hollister.
It’s big news this year at the fair among the kitchen crowd: Hollister, 87, suddenly ended her reign as superintendent of food contests, the corner of the fair that I’ve referred to as “the gladiatorial pinnacle for all Iowans who do battle with a spatula and measuring cup.”
“It’s hard without her,” McKilligan said. “We miss her being here. It’s hard emotionally.”
I spotted McKilligan again Thursday, the fair's opening day. She was the blur who sped from one contest to the next. She helped guide a rolling table of grotesque cakes. She gave a direction to a person in a giant mouse costume.
Two years ago I wrote a profile of Hollister as she presided over not only the Food Center but the entire State Fair Parade as its distinguished grand marshal.
Last year, McKilligan, 59, a longtime spectator and volunteer in the Food Center, officially became Hollister’s understudy. She shared every step of the process to learn the ropes. There was a loose plan for succession on an indefinite timeline.
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That plan suddenly became reality in June when Hollister tripped and fell at a local hair salon, hitting her head hard enough to leave cuts and bruises. She needed time and care to recuperate.
Meanwhile, she and her husband, Glen, also suffered the flooding of their kitchen thanks to a faulty refrigerator water line.
Hollister was scheduled Thursday to move out of the Iowa Jewish Senior Life Center in Des Moines, where she has convalesced, and move in with her daughter and son-in-law for a month.
“I’ve got good help here,” she said when I reached her on the phone.
Two years ago she told me, "My husband says the only way they’ll get me out of there is on a gurney."
But now she sounds satisfied to turn over her Food Center desk to a trusted successor.
“I needed to get some new blood in there,” she said. “You need to get some good suggestions from young people.”
By this point Hollister had cultivated deep background on her staff of 65 or so regular food judges and their various expertise.
Now everything possible is being chronicled and stored on something that is new to the desk: a sleek Apple laptop computer sat there a few inches from a bottle of Dorothy Lynch salad dressing.
“I’m sure we’ll uncover things that were only in Arlette’s head,” McKilligan said.
McKilligan, a Floridian with an agribusiness degree from Auburn University in Alabama, met her husband, Denny, in Illinois. They circulated through a few states before moving to Iowa 18 years ago. They live in Ames. Denny works for an animal products company.
“I feel like all roads lead to Iowa when you’re involved in animal agriculture,” she said.
The couple has a daughter in West Des Moines and a son in the Air Force currently deployed to the Middle East.
Even days before the fair, the phone behind the desk kept ringing with continuous questions from contestants and fair officials alike.
Hollister, meanwhile, said that she plans to visit the fair this year if she feels good enough.
“I don’t want to create too much of a commotion," she said, fully in character with her self-deprecating style.
McKilligan is busy handling the commotion of competition. Some of the top-dollar prizes have in the Food Center have faded. But the “All About Sausage” contest sponsored by Beeler’s pork offers a total $3,000 purse, including a $1,500 blue ribbon.
Two Chicks from the Sticks and the Kitchen Collage have revived the popular Cinnamon Roll Contest with a top prize of $200 plus a new mixer.
“I just have a drive to do everything I can to preserve this department and make it as much as it can be," McKilligan said.
Hollister and the cooks of Iowa can rest easy.
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 (/KyleMunson) and Twitter (@KyleMunson).