South of the Border: A Trip to the Iowa State Fair

Minnesotans know their State Fair is top notch, unequivocally one of the very few best in the nation. However, the Midwestern sense of inadequacy can outweigh our pride, leaving us often unable to brag without placing down some caveats. Yes, the Great Minnesota Get-Together is a gold standard of what makes a great fair, but there are other great fairs in other states too, don’tcha know.

While nearly every state holds a State Fair, many are barely worth mentioning; some struggle with holding their fair in a single location amid a large state, making it unfeasible for much of the population to attend. Other states simply have a disinterest in what can be a relatively antiquated concept: an exhibition with agricultural roots in a modern society, competing with endless other forms of entertainment. Very few are a travel destination and a must-see in the way the Minnesota State Fair is, drawing national press attention for our unique foods, major musical performances and oddities like Crop Art and butter princesses.

While most metrics put the Minnesota State Fair firmly as the top State Fair in the country, those who follow the genre consistently hear of two other heavyweights that get brought into the conversation: Texas and Iowa. The mammoth Texas State Fair, held over an entire month annually in Dallas, attracts more visitors than the Minnesota State Fair by virtue of running more than twice as long; while Minnesota bests them in average daily attendance, Texas impresses by including a major college football rivalry held at the stadium on their fairgrounds each year. The Iowa State Fair, which directly precedes Minnesota’s in early August with a similar format, stakes claim to the largest fairgrounds of any State Fair, with a whopping 445 acres to spread out upon. By comparison, the Minnesota fairgrounds is just 322 acres, which can seem large to most fairgoers but is paltry when measured up to Iowa.

As a lifelong Fair enthusiast, I have heard for years about the merits of Texas and Iowa, and dreamed about one day checking out their Fairs. While Texas remains on my bucket list, the Iowa State Fair is just a quick drive directly down I-35 from our state, in the heart of Des Moines, so we decided this year was the right time to see their Fair in person and see how it stacks up to our annual summer celebration. Unfortunately, our time was limited to just a single day visit, attending on their first of two Saturdays, a hot, humid and sunny day in their state’s capitol, but provided enough time to get some valuable impressions on this lauded state fair.

A Massive Fairgrounds — But Similar

The Iowa State Fair Grandstand is fitting companion for the rest of their Fairgrounds — a massive and ornately decorated old building

The first impression that an avid Minnesota State Fair fan will have when they walk through the gates of the Iowa State Fair and start to explore these 445 acres of fairgrounds is that the two fairs share a lot in common with each other. A large Grandstand building is the focal point of both Fairs, both built in the early 1900s. Wide expanses of streets lined with individual vendors, mostly food, emanate out from the Grandstand area. Their version of the Mighty Midway is dubbed Thrill Ville, but features many of the same rollercoasters and amusement park rides found back home. Some familiar Minnesota State Fair favorites even have their own Hawkeye State versions: Ye Olde Mill and the Giant Slide both have Iowan outposts that are virtually identical to those that Minnesotans have loved for decades. Add in a multitude of barns to the fairgrounds’ south end and a hilly area filled with a hodgepodge of buildings and attractions to the west, and suddenly one feels right at home.

Not all is totally familiar between the two fairs however. For a first-time fairgoer, that feeling of understanding can quickly fade. It is as if someone broke into your home and rearranged all your belongings but took nothing: everything feels very off, even though you recognize much of what you are seeing. To make matters worse, the official maps provided at the information booths are direly lacking in details, with much of the fairgrounds appearing as green space with no marked attractions or landmarks. Even those information booths are at a premium; we only spotted two across the fairgrounds, both relatively close to each other, one of which was unmanned when we went to ask a question in the later part of the day. To find a particular vendor or building or attraction or food item, much of it is left to a guessing game, or a stroll around the fairgrounds until you find it. We spent much of our time doubling back over ground we had already covered on the hunt for things we were looking for, which quickly becomes frustrating.

The Agriculture Building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds is a stunning landmark, appearing more like a staple of a college campus than a building that would host a cow carved out of butter

With so many acres of land to spread the fair across, even the most busy attendance day feels spacious compared to the maligned overcrowding that is frequently cited as one of the top complaints about the Minnesota State Fair. Most buildings on the grounds are cavernous as well, allowing for visitors to easily visit what each building has to offer. Notable is the very modern Animal Learning Center, similar to Minnesota’s Miracle of Birth Center, both featuring newborn baby farm animals; the Iowa version spreads out a similar variety of animals across a space that appears roughly twice the size of its Minnesota counterpart, while also being more modern and cleaner feeling. Older buildings on the Iowa fairgrounds shine as well: the Agriculture Building, home to the fabled Butter Cow sculpture, was built in 1904 and is an architectural beauty, improved further with beautiful landscaping and fountains surrounding it. Likewise, their Grandstand is a breathtaking building that spans several blocks at 600 feet wide, ornate with beautiful brick details.

With visually-interesting architecture and well-kept grounds, the Iowa State Fairgrounds is certainly a pleasant place to spend your time. Unfortunately, it also feels comparatively sparse and lacking when put up against the Minnesota State Fair. While the Minnesota State Fair is nearly at capacity with vendors, merchants, buildings and attractions occupying nearly every square foot of the grounds, including lining the roads, the Iowa State Fair has quite a bit of open space that is underutilized. The fairgrounds’ west end is a hilly expanse known as Heritage Village, a collection of exhibits dedicated to the earliest days of Iowan settlement, including a general store and a swap meet, but its most notable feature is a large and cumbersome hill that cuts off this area from the rest of the Fairgrounds and renders a large portion of its record-setting acreage unusable. Because of this, while it dwarfs the fairgrounds in the state to its north in total size, the Iowa State Fair can feel much smaller and conversely less interesting to wander through as well.

You’re Probably Just Here for the Food — From Fair Favorites to Epicurean Eats

A close competitor to the famous Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar, Barksdale’s serves up suspiciously similar buckets of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies

Of course, any State Fair is and should be measured by the quality of their food. In Iowa as in Minnesota, most pre-Fair hype is spent on assessing new food offerings and obsessing over annual must-haves. The Iowa State Fair leans into unending curiosity over that year’s new roster of eats by conducting a press conference unveiling dozens of new items and inviting critics to elect three finalists for the Best New Food title. Once the finalists are named, fairgoers vote for the winner during the early days of the fair, bestowing upon one vendor the prestigious title — and what is sure to be a lot of extra business. This is a brilliant feature, and one that the Minnesota State Fair would be wise to adopt; it drives publicity to all the new foods, amps up sales for three particular items, and helps guide attendees to the best of what their fair has to offer. We tried all three of this year’s finalists, and enjoyed each dish in conjunction with all the other offerings we tasted.

The Georgie’s Roast with the Most Wrap from G Mig’s Wrap Stand

This year’s Best New Food winner is well-deserving of the title: the Georgie’s Roast with the Most Wrap from G Mig’s Wrap Stand is terribly named but awfully tasty. The tender, generously portioned beef pot roast is the star of this complex wrap, but each supporting member of the cast plays their roles admirably, from crumbly bits of chorizo adding some spice, corn salsa and green chiles introducing fresh veggies, the tortilla crisps providing texture and the sour cream keeping the entire mixture from being too dry. There are a lot of ingredients here, but the wrap does not become overwhelmed by any one of them, and totals up to a great experience worthy of this prestigious honor. Priced at $10, it is a little bit more expensive than many of the other options at the Iowa State Fair, which generally run slightly cheaper than our own fair, but even at an advanced price we did not regret trying it out.

The Chicken Street Tacos from Chicken City

We tried the other two Best New Food finalists for 2019 during our visit as well. The Chicken Street Tacos from Chicken City comes as three small tacos, overflowing with well-marinated grilled chicken and corn. The flour tortillas were pedestrian, the sour cream did not add much flavor, and the advertised lime mist either did not exist or went entirely unnoticed. At $9, these would be a rather boring option to eat as a meal, but if you split them with others it can be a good value for a quick bite, and is available in a portion of the fairgrounds that was devoid of many other food options.

The Chief from The Rib Shack

The third candidate for Best New Food is The Chief from The Rib Shack, and unfortunately this one was a major disappointment. For a stand that advertises itself as being a BBQ expert, the brisket provided for this dish was extremely rudimentary. The fry bread that the brisket, cilantro lime slaw and salsa cream drizzle are placed upon was neither soft nor flavorful, bearing no resemblance to authentic Native American cooking. $8 does score you a hefty amount of food here, however it was so lifeless that we could not be bothered to finish it off. Lastly, we got some weird vibes from the borderline offensive naming of this item and some of the imagery used to advertise it at their stand; it felt less like a celebration of Native American cuisine and more like a misguided attempt at appropriation. Of the three finalists, this was by far the most puzzling.

The Pork Chop-on-a-Stick from the Iowa Pork Producers stand

While this year’s new food finalists were a mixed bag, the Iowa State Fair has a large roster of returning favorites that have built up a sterling reputation over the years. Most regular fairgoers have their can’t miss favorites, and we tried to hit as many of the most often mentioned ones as possible. The most sensible, given Iowa’s status as a leading pork producer in the nation, was the Pork Chop-on-a-Stick from the Iowa Pork Producers stand. There is nothing flashy about this large, juicy pork chop skewered for portability, and it may not be the most photogenic food item, but it was one of the most delicious items tried all day. $7 nets you this monument of meat, expertly grilled and seasoned by authentic pork farmers who know how to do it best, and should not be missed on a fair visit.

The Wonder Bar and Cookies and Cream Wonder Bar from Soukup’s Wonder Bars

Of course, those looking for some sweet treats will not leave this fair disappointed either. Two of the most lauded items at the Fair are ice cream bars that transcend what you might find elsewhere. The Wonder Bar from Soukup’s Wonder Bars was… well, wünderbar! Available in a traditional chocolate or a Cookies and Cream variety, and provided with or without a peanut coating, these ice cream bars are a great way to beat the sweltering heat, and are very affordable at $3.50 too.

The Peppermint Bar from Bauder’s Ice Cream

If the Wonder Bar is not enough ice cream to satisfy your sweet tooth, tackle the incredible Peppermint Bar from Bauder’s Ice Cream. This one feels like a relic from the era of soda fountains, and its flavor is timeless. A delightfully minty peppermint ice cream is sandwiched by fudge-laced chocolate layers, creating a dessert that comes across like a Klondike bar on steroids. This thing is massive, roughly the size of a Rubik’s Cube; the only knock against it is that it is far too big for one person, and it melts quicker than a person can finish it, leaving the eater a sticky, drippy mess. It is well worth the cleanliness sacrifice however, so load up on napkins, unhinge your jaw and give it a try!

A Bucket of Chocolate Chip Cookies from Barksdale’s Oven Baked Chocolate Chip Cookies

Lastly, the most controversial food item we spotted at the Iowa State Fair bears a strong resemblance to the Minnesota State Fair’s top-selling item: a Bucket of Chocolate Chip Cookies from Barksdale’s Oven Baked Chocolate Chip Cookies. The three Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar stands at the Minnesota State Fair have become a ubiquitous symbol of the Great Minnesota Get-Together, with absurd lines of people waiting at all hours for their order of cookies that are worth the patience. At Barksdale’s, which similarly has three locations throughout the Iowa State Fairgrounds, the scenario is eerily familiar: an $18 bucket gets you about forty cookies, with freshly baked cookies layered on top of the pre-filled bucket, perfect for sharing while warm with your family and friends. Cookie connoisseurs will note that the kinship with Sweet Martha’s ends at the first bite — the Barksdale’s cookie has an entirely different taste, with far less of a sugar flavor and more of a heavy flour taste. Sweet Martha’s cookies can be divisive on their taste and sugar content for some; if you are predisposed against Sweet Martha’s, these may be worth a try. We thought these were okay, but off-putting compared to the genuine article back home, although we will note the leftover cookies from Barksdale’s maintained a better flavor after a few days than Sweet Martha’s cookies do.

And the Blue Ribbon Goes To…

Which State Fair reigns supreme? Who takes the cake in this border battle of two Midwestern states that adore their fairs? Which one offers the best experience, the tastiest food, the best entertainment?

The short answer should come to no surprise to long-time readers of this site: Minnesota clearly has the better fair, in our admittedly biased opinion. However, the long answer is a little more interesting and less blunt; both states put on a fair that is the epitome of what a great State Fair should be, and both states should be proud of what they have built. What is evident throughout the Iowa fairgrounds is a love of their state, their home and their fair. For Gophers like us to wander into Hawkeye territory, be welcomed into their celebration with open arms, and then pass heavy judgment would be, well, not very Midwestern of us. Each year, people visit the Minnesota State Fair from Iowa (and Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, and all the other states, and even from other countries), and we try our best to host them graciously to show off the state we truly feel is the greatest place to live. Iowans have matched that sentiment with their fair, something that is both uniquely theirs, but also so easily shared with the rest of the world.

There is enough room for two great state fairs, even when they share such a close proximity to one another. We loved our day at the Iowa State Fair not because they matched or surpassed what we love about our own state fair, but because Iowa does so much that is special to them and simply match Minnesota’s passion for what is transpiring. Most Minnesota fairgoers don’t love walking through barns looking at farm animals, don’t have a deep passion for baking competitions, don’t have a burning desire to learn about all things dairy or honeybees or the goings on of various state offices. We experience all these things and more at our fair because we love that our neighbors have these careers and hobbies, that they choose to partake in them here in our state and want to share it with us all. This is what creates and drives a community, and it is every bit as present at the Iowa State Fair as well. To be in the midst of that pride of home state is a magical experience, one which we were lucky to get an opportunity to take in; we hope to make the short drive south in early August for many years to come.

Categories Feature Articles, Other State Fairs, Reviews

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