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A stand at the Iowa State Fair surrounded by people

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Toward a Theory of American Festival Cuisine

What the best — and worst — of the Iowa State Fair, from funnel cakes to apple egg rolls to, yes, corn dogs, tells us about abundance in America

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Fried Twinkies. Fried Oreos. Fried pickles. Fried cheese curds. Fried brownies. French fries. Funnel cake (fried). Crazy taters (fried). Caramel apples (not fried). Apple pie on a (fried) stick. Ice cream, dipped in chocolate and covered in nuts (not fried). Hot chocolate chip cookies (not fried), corn on the cob (not fried), and cotton candy (not fried either). But also: freshly fried mini doughnuts, fried ice cream, and corn dogs. Veggie corn dogs too.

At first glance, American fair, er, fare is a hater’s buffet of our basest culinary excesses. If you associate ever-hotter summer weather with vacation, grilling, and tomato season, the spectacle of state fairs, all greasy fingers and hot oil with a sticky miasma of eau de cardiac arrest, might seem like a national side show. The dominant strain of American food writing worships the heavy, sweet August peach, not joining a sweaty crush of fairgoers consuming deliriously hyper-processed treats, along with their ever-more-baroque mutations — chocolate-covered bacon on a stick, rainbow poutine, fried Coke. Media coverage of fair food tends to latch onto words like wacky, ridiculous, and strange; fairs aren’t just spectacle for the fairgoer, but for those who report back. Mix in politics and it only seems worse: Candidates for higher office stumping between huge bites of a pork chop on a stick is precisely the form of pandering that America deserves, right?

People pick at a powdered-sugar-coated funnel cake on a plate.
A group of teenagers share a classic funnel cake from McGrath’s Funnel Cakes.

Except, what if we want to see potential presidents eat corn dogs because corn dogs are good? Like really, really good, even ingenious — the perfect walking-around food, mixing a crisp exterior with a soft cakey batter and the salty, almost acidic umami of a hot dog in one bite. Hot, juicy fried pickles are both indulgent and palate-cleansing; fried cheese curds, a pleasing mix of crispy and creamy; and fried Oreos are delightfully excessive while being obviously in on the joke.

There’s been a lot written about the history of various state fair foods, but they’re never quite treated as part of a distinct, singular cuisine, even though I’d argue that they are: Very few restaurants sell corn dogs, funnel cake, fried Twinkies, and caramel apples on the same menu, and often, if they show up at all, it’s as a winking allusion, like the foie gras funnel cake at fine dining restaurant Otium in Los Angeles. The inventor of the fried Oreo, Charlie Boghosian, known as Chicken Charlie, has two San Diego restaurants, but maintains a separate menu for his offerings at the Orange County Fair. These foods are built for fairs, and not just because so many of them come on a stick: In an environment of sensory overload, the flavors we crave aren’t sharp or spicy or bitter — they’re fatty and sweet and comforting, amped up just enough that they feel like part of the spectacle. Summer is fried Twinkie season, too.

At the annual Iowa State Fair, farm families still arrive to show animals for competitions, as they have for 165 years. The grounds on the eastern side of Des Moines have been the fair’s home since 1886; each massive, brick animal barn is marked with a marble plaque that reveals what’s inside, like, say, SWINE. A hulking, gargantuan prize bull endures his fans in the cow barn; in the Ag building, the famous butter cow basks in her worship. There’s a vintage tractor show, an endless program of dance performances, state-of-the-art cattle chutes on display next to a Roomba for cutting lawns. The Varied Industries building is home to stands for the University of Iowa, animal rescue groups, solar panel installers, next-level gutter guards, mattress sellers, and at least one Creationist display about Noah’s Ark. There are carnival rides and prize-winning chickens in little red wagons and a Slipknot museum. But most people are just there to eat.

A young person walks a cow down a street with a low red brick building in the background.
A young competitor leads a calf to the Livestock Pavilion for judging.

There are new food items every year — 2019 saw arrivistes like dessert poutine (sweet potato fries with several even sweeter toppings) and corn dog beer (made with hot dog buns and corn bread) — but the vast majority of dishes have been served for years, if not decades. Some of the most beloved stands are also the oldest, whether it’s Hardenbrook’s concessions, at the fair since 1913, Carl’s Gizmo hot Italian sandwiches, since 1947, or relative newcomer the Veggie Table, which started in 1981. For regulars, this sense of tradition is at the core of fair eating, and while most items are available throughout the day, there is an unofficial meal schedule. Mornings are for fresh mini doughnuts from JD Donuts, a classic stand open early for breakfast. The afternoon is for corn — corn dogs and corn on the cob. Around dinner, once the heat starts to abate, lines grow for the now-classic beef sundaes (mashed potatoes are the ice cream, roast beef is the hot fudge); gargantuan taco salads; and the Iowa Pork Producer’s Iowa chop dinner, which consists of a specially cut pork chop with baked beans, applesauce, and potato chips. Things get a little silly, sure, but never quite escalate into the kind of glorious gonzo fryer arms race that one might witness at the Texas State Fair.

The Iowa State Fair, in other words, is an ideal place to sample American Festival Cuisine at its finest, and over six days, I tried nearly 40 dishes. While in line at JD Donuts one morning, I overheard two fairgoers discussing what they would eat that day, and in what order. When I asked about their must-hits, the two women included JD’s miniature, sugar-dusted doughnuts; corn dogs; fried cheese curds; and lemonade. Eater Vegas editor Susan Stapleton, an Iowa native who comes back every year, says the classics include the fair square (a big Rice Krispie treat on a stick that was not available this year), the Gizmo sandwich, beef sundaes, pineapple soft serve, and Bauder’s peppermint squares. I managed to try almost all of these favorites (the beef sundae eluded me), letting locals and my own perambulations in between chasing presidential candidates set my agenda. Six days is a lot of days of fried food, but the Iowa State Fair most definitely fits the Michelin three-star definition of “exceptional cuisine, worthy of a special journey.” And I wouldn’t try tackling it in less than a full day.

A person holds a peppermint square ice cream dessert in red-and-white checkered wax paper.
A fairgoer unwraps a Bauder’s peppermint square.

It’s hard to name a single best dish, or even a top three. But there were two that stuck out for capturing the joyful excess of the fair; they were so delicious that they were impossible to stop eating. In terms of sweet foods, nothing could touch the Bauder’s peppermint square. Bauder’s Ice Cream is a pharmacy and ice cream shop dating back to 1916; it started coming to the fair in the ’80s, and about 15 years ago, it introduced the peppermint square, a hunk of peppermint ice cream layered with fudge and crushed Oreos and served as a gargantuan hand-held sandwich. Bauder’s intensely rich ice cream (12 percent butterfat, according to the Des Moines Register) was counterbalanced by the kick of peppermint, and the essential creamy layer of fudge between the Oreo and ice cream transformed the bar into portable sundae. I ate it leaning against a nearby planter, dumbfounded by pleasure, the crowd streaming by reduced to a faint blur.

Equally satisfying were the fried cheese curds from Brad & Harry’s, a blazing yellow and orange stand with a Jerry-like mouse beckoning at multiple locations around the fair. Fans of the Minnesota and Wisconsin state fairs (or of Culver’s) maybe have even higher fried cheese standards than I do, but the hot, crispy curds (hunks of fresh, unaged cheddar cheese), served in a basket with space for marinara, ketchup, ranch, or all three, were all the pleasure of mozzarella sticks with none of the fear of choking to death at a TGI Friday’s. The canned marinara underwhelmed, but dipping the cheese curds, hot against my fingertips, into ketchup while walking down the evening midway, the lights blazing a fairyland glow, captured a moment of pure American abundance, collapsing the chaos of the now into something that was maybe actually good.

A pile of cheese curds in a red-and-white paper basket.
A basket of fried cheese curds from Brad & Harry’s.

But that six-day eating spree had plenty of other highlights. Hardenbrook’s, the fair’s oldest concession company, serves classics like pork tenderloin sandwiches and new-fangled additions like totchos, but I stopped by its burger-focused stand instead, which comes complete with a diner-like counter. The cheeseburger was a thin, classic patty, one lots of hip Los Angeles burger pop-ups imitate, served with sharp mustard and a pickle. It was blessedly uncomplicated. On the other hand, for those who wished to diversify their strict battered-meat-on-a-stick diet beyond the corn dog, the fried chicken and waffle from Waffle Chix offered an intense salty-sweet amplitude.

The fair also has a wealth of light, sweet snacks that are perfect to grab and try whenever they catch your eye. The Wooden Shoe stand sells Dutch letter pastries, a classic from the town of Pella, Iowa; the person behind me in line declared he could never order fewer than two. Thin and S-shaped, they’re dusted with sugar and filled with almond paste, and they were the best and most unexpected pastry I tried. Tradition doesn’t always reign supreme, though: Apple egg rolls, from the Applishus stands, despite sounding suspiciously like bad chain-restaurant fusion, were shockingly light, flaky apple pastries; no wonder their mash-up simplicity won new best fair food in 2018. In general, anything apple is a good bet to break up heavier eating. A caramel apple with nuts, crisp and sweet, is the ideal end to the night.

A person picks at a foil-wrapped turkey leg.
Demolishing a smoked turkey leg.
A hand pulls at ribbon fries covered in cheese sauce on a plate.
Ribbon fries with cheese sauce, one of the fair’s many french fry variations.

The crazy tater does nothing wrong, corn on a cob is tough, chocolate-dipped cheesecake is immensely appealing but doesn’t feel core, ditto the fried Cajun chicken on a stick, though it’s worth ordering just to get a bite that includes the onion and pickle. A bucket of hot, tiny chocolate chip cookies is a bucket of hot, tiny chocolate chip cookies, and they delighted the press room; bacon balls contain nine pieces of bacon and taste like barbecue sauce; fried Twinkies are indecently good and the lemonade is fine and the one caffeine-centric stand sells an extremely bitter and effective iced Americano and no one else believes in coffee at all. The hottest club at the Iowa State Fair is the craft beer tent. The hottest teen club is funnel cake. Whew.

I was a little unnerved to discover that the fair’s famous pork chop on a stick is really a pork chop held by the bone, served hot and unadorned, with barbecue sauce nearby. The pork chop’s main pleasure is in its briny juiciness, and the slight subversiveness of walking around eating a hunk of meat usually reserved for knife and fork. Home cooks and grill nerds might prefer their own pork chops, properly charred; the fair versions generally arrive gray with maybe, maybe faint grill marks (though the chops Kamala Harris grilled looked pretty good).

An overhead view of the Iowa State Fair concession stands at dusk.
Grand Avenue is one of the fair’s busiest midways, lined with food stands.

There was also way more of my hometown of Philadelphia than I ever would have expected. Certain stands sell “steak Philly” and “chicken Philly” sandwiches (no, that is not how you conjugate cheesesteak). And one of the most iconic foods at the Iowa and Minnesota state fairs is right out of an Italian deli. The Gizmo sandwich, a mix of beef and sausage ground meat sealed in place with melted mozzarella on a roll, is tasty when taken as one big bite. It made more sense to me the second time around, after I’d taken a field trip to try the state’s famous loose meat sandwich, which operates on a similar principle. I grew up surrounded by hoagies and grinders and chicken parm, so I am personally cursed with the knowledge of everything a hot Italian sandwich can be in this world. If you didn’t grow up with your childhood sandwiches on Amoroso’s, the Gizmo will do just fine.

Fair food misfires occur either when dishes become overly complicated, which is often the case with new food entries meant to be enticing, or when they’re tragically unadorned except for being jammed on a stick. Sticks are fun, sticks are useful, but sticks are not seasoning. Caprese salad on a stick is refreshing in that it’s nice to eat a vegetable, but without olive oil tying it together, the whole thing is a bit bland. Hard-boiled eggs on a stick, available in the Ag building near the butter cow, had the appeal of being free, but they were ultimately hard boiled eggs on a stick, with a bottle of faux-Tajin to shake on it. A strawberry-chocolate-cheesecake chimi gushed out in a gloopy mess, and lacked the charm of any of the four foods its name invoked. Several taco trucks park not far from the fair every night, and the Mexican food options on the fairgrounds suggest everyone would be better off if those trucks were invited in.

A group of concession stands illuminated at night.
A cluster of the over 200 stands scattered across the fairgrounds.

The fair is stacked with strawberry smoothie stands, but to me they tasted like canned pie filling without the pie. It would be very easy, here, to shake my fist at the fact that an agricultural festival doesn’t serve fresh strawberries in the summer, but as of 2017, Iowa’s five biggest agricultural products are corn, pork, soybeans, cattle, and dairy. A celebration of agriculture in Iowa unsurprisingly venerates those crops, which are, above all, commodities. (In the Ag pavilion, a collection of prize-winning vegetables were on display, but they were dwarfed by the showcases of prize-winning corn, and wholly ignored by the crowd that’s there to see the butter cow, which was in fact spectacular.)

Logically, it would be more feasible to get farm-fresh pork, corn, and dairy in Iowa than anywhere else on earth, but the systems that produce them are designed around a market that operates at a vastly different scale than a local farmer’s stand. The corn dog embodies Iowa agriculture precisely because it’s a hyper-processed pork product coated in a dairy-loaded batter that involves corn. Even better if it’s also fried in soybean oil. America’s agricultural policies incentivize commodities and processed food — why would we eat anything but meat and fried, processed carbohydrates at our harvest festivals? This isn’t a knock on the heartland. California, touted as the fresh vegetable capital of the country, processes a great deal of its harvest, too. On a recent trip up I-5, I followed truck after truck loaded with garlic to the garlic powder factory in Gilroy; the fried Oreo was invented at the Orange County state fair.

A man bites into a corn dog.
A Mayor Pete supporter takes a bite out of a corn dog.

American festival cuisine captures what real American abundance looks like right now, in its uneasy complexity, which is why it endeavors to celebrate corn and meat and their multifarious iterations in the highest possible way. And honestly, it kind of works. The problem isn’t really all the fried foods, which are just celebration foods. Most people have them once a year. The problem is the utter dominance of nutrient-stripped derivatives of this small cluster of products in our dietary landscape, especially for those who are overworked for lower and lower wages, with less and less time to cook. People who dismiss fair food as gross or disgusting miss both what makes industrialized food tasty and appealing, and also how clearly these celebration foods reflect our cultural priorities, which are abundance, convenience, and comfort. I wish those priorities were different. But I also can’t deny the wonderfulness of a corn dog.

And here’s the thing: Really, truly, the best things at the fair are the corn dogs. No one I spoke to had a favorite vendor; the only thing that mattered was getting a freshly fried one. So, as it is with taco stands, pick a corn dog stand that’s busy, staffed by friendlier teens who aren’t jaded to the fun of frying things yet, and go big. The foot-long corn dogs just taste better — it’s the law. Real state fair pros douse theirs with three long streams of ketchup, since dipping gets arduous. Yes, they’re phallic, yes, they’re gut-busting. But this is a harvest festival. Eat one to ensure fertility for the next year. Literally everyone else around you will be, too.

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