Over the weekend, the Democratic block of presidential hopefuls descended on the Iowa State Fair to partake in a cherished American tradition: stuffing one’s self to the gills with fried foods while the rest of the country looks on. In the spirit of a Renaissance fair frequent flyer, Andrew Yang purchased not one but two turkey legs. Tulsi Gabbard accidentally tarnished her vegan diet with a non-vegan boat of fried avocado slices. Kamala Harris tried to impress pork producers by eating a grilled pork chop. Amy Klobuchar tucked into fried cheese curds and Cory Booker took a bite out of a vegan fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Pete Buttigieg ate just about everything. But with a smorgasbord of fair delicacies available, one deep-fried delight continues to be a staple among the campaigners at the fair: Whether vegetarian or omnivore, a majority of candidates — this year it was the democrats’ turn — made sure to purchase a corn dog.
Slightly sweet, crisp, hot and preferably dunked in yellow mustard, the corn dog is an institution on fair circuits, regularly outselling its fellow deep-fried snacks. While these top-heavy, golden meat popsicles can be purchased from frozen food aisles and stands at the mall food court, they’re inextricably linked with the seasonal festivals and play an unusually consequential role in the optics of national politics for both Republicans and Democrats. To eat a corn dog is to visually embrace the philosophy of the fair — to let go of dietary guidelines and willfully consume a meal of corn and an amalgam of pork product. It’s an instant visual icon. Unlike a fried butter or a pork chop on a stick, nearly everyone can relate to eating a corn dog.
The origins of corn dogs are just as complicated as the optics of consuming them. Corn dogs are believed to have originated in the early 1900s. German immigrants entering Texas were some of the first to start selling cornbread-covered sausages as a way to appeal to local palates. A product called the Krusty Korn Sausage Pan was first patented in 1910 with accompanying advertisements suggesting it was used for baking sausages into cornbread — a “famous combination.” A similar 1924 patent filed by Francis Matson shows drawings of his device, “wherein a previously cooked sausage, such as a frankfurter, is enclosed in a casing of baked batter.” Neither example, however, appears to have been affixed on a stick. A separate patent submitted by Stanley S. Jenkins of Buffalo, New York, in 1927 takes the corn dog process a step farther with a device that clamps onto and deep fries items “impaled on sticks and dipped in a batter,” such as “wieners.”
However, the corn dog didn’t truly take off until the late 1930s and early 1940s. Around that time, George Boyington, a former bootlegger and hot dog stand owner from Rockaway Beach, Oregon, developed his signature breaded hot dog recipe. As the legend goes, Boyington’s hot dog buns were drenched in a downpour during Labor Day weekend. The weiner peddler found himself on the beach feeding birds his sodden buns and pondering an alternative to soggy bread. When he returned to his stand he decided to skewer, batter, and fry the sausages for a portable feast without fear of rain. The Pronto Pup was born and soon became a staple on the fair circuit — particularly the Minnesota State Fair, which sold its 25 millionth Pronto Pup in 2016.
Boyington started cooking up Pronto Pups during the same period when a family in Texas was developing its own recipe for corn dogs (or rather Corny Dogs). Brothers Carl and Neil Fletcher opened Fletcher’s Corny Dog at the State Fair of Texas in 1942 selling corn dogs for 15 cents each. They became a signature of the fair as much as Big Tex, with a highly guarded recipe that’s locked away in a safe. Today, the family-owned company continues to serve Corny Dogs at the State Fair of Texas and other major events. A single fair stand is known to sell upwards of 400,000 corn dogs during the annual event.
It’s not clear when corn dog stands were first introduced at the Iowa State Fair, but like at other major state fairs, corn dogs have firmly been integrated into the fabric of the festival landscape. The Iowa State Fair serves nearly 70 types of food on-a-stick, including 11 styles of corn dog — the fair’s number one seller above pork tenderloin on a stick, lemonade, and funnel cake. The fair even holds a record dating to 2008 for most people to simultaneously eating corn dogs. This year, visitors could also partake in corn dog ale. Even the symbol for the Des Moines Register’s Iowa State Fair’s Food Finder app is a corn dog with a line of yellow mustard.
These facts alone make it unsurprising that candidates seek them out for a photo op. They’re ubiquitous and easy to grasp with one hand while gesturing with another. Perhaps more importantly, they have an Americana wholesomeness that can be captured by the press hordes, the whole purpose of visiting the fair in the first place. Fairs themselves are a monument to a bygone, agrarian lifestyle, where farmers and makers are celebrated for their blue ribbon-winning hogs, gargantuan pumpkins, and painstakingly sewn quilts. To blend into the “folksy” image of the fair is a badge that separates the archetypal city slicker from their rural counterpart. For that reason, politicians have long frequented state fairs during an election year in an effort to shore up their credentials as regular joes willing to eat junk food in the sun and marvel at the butter cow.
President Dwight Eisenhower is believed to be one of the first presidents to tour the Iowa State Fair during his reelection campaign in 1954, drawing 25,000 people with his speech. But the fair didn’t become a staple on the national campaign circuit until 1972 when the Iowa state caucuses were established as the first major contest of the presidential primary season. Since then, the Iowa State Fair has held an outsized influence in American politics relative to its population and largely white demographics. Jimmy Carter famously campaigned at the fair before defeating President Gerald Ford in the 1976 election. At the fair attendees can see multiple candidates step up to the Des Moines Register-sponsored Soapbox platform and give speeches making their case for the country while trying not to produce a gaffe a la Joe Biden’s “truth over facts” or Mitt Romney’s “Corporations are people.” Then, those same fairgoers cast corn kernels into mason jars as an informal poll for their favorite candidates in the race.
Speeches are a minefield for candidates, but the closely held cultural mores of food consumption can be equally harrowing to parse. In the public eye, an unusual bagel order can become a front page headline and eating pizza with a fork becomes a personal affront to voters everywhere. Had Gerald Ford not bit into a tamal still wrapped in its husk at the Alamo, perhaps he might have been reelected. With press coalescing around the Iowa State Fair during the Soapbox, the event has also elicited plenty of its own food-related political missteps. Coming off a rocky visit to Philadelphia in August 2003 during which he made the fateful mistake of ordering a Philly cheesesteak with Swiss instead of the traditional Cheez Whiz, then-Senator John Kerry made a beeline for a refreshment stand at the Iowa State Fair where he picked up a $4 strawberry smoothie with an umbrella in it. The smoothie selection did not go over well with campaign operative and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who was trying to help Kerry shed the elitist image of the previous food mishap. Gibbs reportedly called a staffer and demanded that “Somebody get a f-ing corn dog in his hand — now!” (Kerry made up for it a year later with a corn dog photo op at the Minnesota State Fair, Garrison Keillor’s ketchup wielding presence excluded.)
In my defense, it was delicious - but you’re right Matt, that smoothie clearly killed me in the Iowa caucuses! https://t.co/7Wc6r60fcJ— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) August 7, 2019
Yet even the corn dog isn’t an exact science at the fair. Sure, corn dogs embody the down-home ethos of the fair in which eating copious amounts of fried meat-on-a-stick is immortalized rather than shamed as an oily, processed food. A candidate eating one can be memorable and relatable, reading as, “Politicians, they’re just like us.” However, their phallic shape and skewers make for inelegant eating, and in a 24-hour campaign news cycle in the age of Photoshop, some political operatives view them as a risky photo op.
“It may be a bit indiscreet, but don’t be photographed eating a corn dog,” one veteran presidential campaign veteran Eric Woolson warned in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “Just Google Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry and corn dog,” he added.
Both failed presidential hopefuls represent cautionary tales of corn dog eating gone awry. During Perry’s 2011 visit, photographers captured numerous unfortunate angles of Texas governor’s corn dog bite. In one image, Perry’s mouth is agape and tongue flapping to receive the tip of the (vegetarian) corn dog and in another he takes the bite, fully encompassing the end of the corn dog with his mouth. For Bachmann, the photo came as she bit into a foot-long chicken and beef sausage corn dog with eyes awkwardly half-closed. In both cases, the candidates faced depressingly predictable homophobic and sexist coverage complete with sexual innuendo. The resulting internet memes outlasted both candidates’ hopes of reaching the White House.
That’s perhaps why candidates such as Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, and Donald Trump opt for the pork chop — a strange stick food that’s less familiar than the corn dog and still ungainly, but lacks some of the vulgar associations.
That doesn’t mean eating a corn dog for the camera is a campaign’s death knell. President Barack Obama visited the famed fair in his successful bid for the White House in 2007 and managed to snag a corn dog in front of the press without much fanfare.
During this latest fair food frenzy, Democrats took advantage of the Iowa State Fair as an opportunity to stand out from a broad pack of rivals. This year’s candidates showed differing levels of restraint when it came to the corn dog. Whether they took a bite or simply held the meat stick up for a photo tended to fall along gender lines. Bill de Blasio struck a pose in front of a food stand, the sleeves on his robin’s egg blue shirt rolled up as he finished his corn dog and was teased for it by New York media outlets. Bernie Sanders also didn’t shy away from the corn dog photo. Andrew Yang went hard on all of Iowa’s fair foods. While filming a spot for The Late Show featuring writer Brian Stack as fake presidential candidate Gregory Whytman, Yang asked an employee at the corn dog stand for a recommendation for ketchup or mustard. After being asked whether it was possible to eat a corn dog on camera without become a meme, Yang took a notably awkward side bite in front of cameras. The segment, which cracked jokes about politicians eating corn dogs, seemed to have a cooling effect on visits to the corn dog stands, Ruth McCoy of the Veggie Table told Eater correspondent Meghan McCarron. “It seems like they all started staying away from eating a corn dog after that.”
Meanwhile, the women campaigning at the fair generally elected not to eat corn dogs for the camera. Senator Elizabeth Warren carted a corn dog around the fair amidst a gaggle of eager supporters and press. She was later seen stepping into a car with the untouched corn dog. Tulsi Gabbard did purchase a veggie corn dog, though handlers told reporters she wouldn’t be eating in front of the press. Mayor Pete Buttigieg enthusiastically consumed rootbeer floats, fired bacon balls, fried Oreos, pork chop-on-a-stick, and a slushie, but bypassed the corn dog counters. Others, unwilling to take the chance on an unphotogenic moment, simply stuck to the ice cream and butter sculptures.
The selection of food available at fairs today stretches about as far as the human imagination, yet the humble corn dog continues to attract American fairgoers. And while candidates may come and go — or maybe never arrived at all, in a pack of 23 — their Iowa State Fair corn dog memories (and the accompanying photos) will endure for years to come.