At the Iowa State Fair, meat and dairy reign. Dating back to 1854, the annual fair is one of the nation’s largest and most famous agricultural festivals, and in Iowa, agriculture mostly means meat. Pork is one of the state’s biggest agricultural commodities — it is an oft-regurgitated canard that pigs outnumber people in Iowa by seven to one — and at the fair, like any good harvest festival, it is ritualistically consumed in many guises: as a corn dog, or a pork chop held by the bone, or even in the form of bacon caramel pie. Fairgoers, their noses and mouths fully saturated with the taste and smell of hog, seek out the palate-cleansing properties of turkey legs, chocolate-dipped ice cream bars, and fried cheese curds.
Unlike at the grocery store, where meat is wrapped in antiseptic plastic and cheese comes pre-sliced, there’s no ambiguity about where all that animal product comes from. The pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens are all proudly on display, the journey from calf to quarter-pounder laid startlingly bare: a dairy stand slings milkshakes in front of the cow barn, while lamb kebabs await just outside the sheep pen.
During presidential primary years, like this year or 2015 before it, the Iowa State Fair is also a major campaign stop. But this time around, as contenders for the Democratic nomination geared up to eat their obligatory corn dogs, tote around turkey legs, and flip pork chops, there was a fresh question on the campaign trail: What would the two vegan candidates, Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, eat?
The answer led Booker and Gabbard to the same place: the Veggie Table, a bright yellow stand emblazoned with “Home of the Veggie Corndog,” located on the fair’s main drag. For 38 years, despite a name that evokes the fresh produce of a farmer’s market, the stand has catered to the fair’s vegetarian pioneers with a smorgasbord of hot and greasy and salty fried vegetable dishes, from fried pickles to fried zucchini. The fair has other vegetarian options, but they’re either side dishes (french fries) or too healthy to feel celebratory (salad on a stick???). But the Veggie Table knows that even those who avoid meat still come to the fair to eat something fried.
Last Friday, Gabbard ordered a basket of fried avocados, the stand’s new item for 2019 — the fair encourages long-time vendors to regularly introduce new food items — which she picked at as she walked around introducing herself to voters. She even shared a few with a couple of fairgoers. But there was something lurking in the avocados: dairy. All of the Veggie Table’s batter contains milk, and Gabbard had not been warned off of the dish because the stand had been inaccurately informed that she was a vegetarian, not a vegan. “I’m sorry we contaminated her,” Veggie Table owner Ruth McCoy said. (Eater has reached out to the Gabbard campaign for comment).
On Sunday, Booker chomped down on one of the stand’s handful of fully vegan options, a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As he bit into it, the jelly spilled out, and he reacted with noticeably more delight than many candidates had while dutifully gnawing pork chops and corn dogs. “I’m in a bit of heaven right now,” he said. He ordered another.
While Booker waited for his second fried PB&J, he chatted with Bryan McCoy, Ruth’s son, about the history of the Veggie Table, a family-run operation that exists each year for just eleven days, and only at the Iowa State Fair. It was founded by Bryan’s grandmother, a vegetarian, in 1981, and has been run by Ruth since 2000. Vegetarians exist in the heartland, too, and they’ve been grateful to have a place at the roving, handheld fried food feast that many attendees consider the fair’s main attraction. When Booker offered to buy an onlooker a corn dog, she said to Bryan, “Thank you for making a veggie corn dog for us vegetarians.”
The Veggie Table started with pre-packaged frozen, battered vegetables, sold from a wooden stand the family wheeled over from their nearby home. During their first fair outing, everyone made just $100. But after Ruth’s branch of the McCoys came back for another year and secured a better location, the Veggie Table took off. Now, the Veggie Table serves a variety of frozen, pre-battered vegetables, including mushrooms, cauliflower, and onion rings. (Bryan had asked their Sysco rep for battered avocados for several years, and this was the year the food supplier giant finally came through.). Ruth says the stand’s customer base has grown enormously — the revenue has helped put Bryan through college — though she’s not sure if that’s because more people are eating vegetarian, or just because each year at the fair, more people discover them.
The Veggie Table’s biggest hit is the veggie corn dog, which consists of a veggie hot dog from the midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee that is freshly battered and fried. At the Iowa State Fair, corn dogs are ubiquitous; walking around the crowded midways, it’s almost impossible to not see someone eating a corn dog. Ruth, who introduced the veggie corn dog in 2000, after taking over from her mother-in-law, says that their most regular customers are Indian-Americans who eat vegetarian, along with a large number of younger women. Ruth herself is not vegetarian, though she believes that more and more people her age are thinking about cutting back on meat, though, for the environment and their health. She tries not to eat much meat herself, besides some fish and chicken.
Down the way from the Veggie Table, the Iowa Farm Bureau’s massive stand offered teeshirts emblazoned with their theme for the year’s fair: Real Farmers. Real Meat. Real Food. Ruth says the stand does occasionally hear from farmers who say that the Veggie Table is undermining their livelihood; given that the Iowa Pork Producers tent moves 100,000 pork products over the course of the fair, though, it seems safe to say that veggie corn dogs probably aren’t much of a threat. Still, in 2013, when animal rights activists covered the fair’s famous butter cow in fake blood, Ruth says that fingers were pointed at the Veggie Table, and that police even came to question them.
Ruth turned 60 this year, and thinks it will be her last setting up the stand and frying food in the heat. But when she spoke about stepping down, she started to cry. “It’s so rewarding, honestly, to have so many people thank you,” she said. “I was in my 20s, and my son was a year-and-a-half when we started. It’s such a family thing.” Her nephew who usually helps out is in the hospital this year; he was diagnosed with cancer, and she’s sad not to get to spend time with him. “It’s also time to let that younger group step up,” Ruth said. “I remember when my mother-in-law stepped down, we brought in the veggie corn dog next year. New ideas come with younger folks.”
Bryan, who now lives in Chicago, plans on taking over the stand next year and running it with his generation of cousins. “[Booker] talks a lot about bootstraps and working your way up, and that’s the story of my family as well,” Bryan said. “My parents did this just to make ends meet. It’s great to be here to carry on the tradition.” As for the prospect of having a vegan president, Bryan said it could change the world. One of the younger McCoy cousins working at the stand added, “It’s better than having a meathead.”