THE FEATURE – What is Iowa cuisine?

It is much more than you might think.

By Jim Duncan

God, and the most recent Ice Age, blessed Iowa with the best soil on earth for growing good things to eat. After World War II, though, once diverse and sustainable farms were plowed in the service of corn and soybeans. As a result, the state is rarely credited with a cuisine of its own the way that states like Texas, New Mexico and Wisconsin are. Iowa has all the assets of a great cuisine: incredible soil, farm-to-table freshness, artisan magnificence, ethnic traditions, plenty of rain, peculiarities, the nation’s largest heirloom seed bank and big food events.

Third-millennium Iowa produces again diverse foods of amazing quality, many unique to Iowa. Red Fern Farm near Grandview grows some of the best paw paws, persimmons, chestnuts and specialty pears in America. Grass-fed dairy cows in Fairfield, Woodward and Kalona produce milk that encourages traveling salesmen to keep coolers in their trunks. Richard Garrelts of Mount Pleasant feeds his elk Iowa delicacies — oak and maple leaves — that depart a unique natural flavor. Rustik Rooster Farms developed the Iowa Swabian Hall pig by crossing Russian Wild Boars with Chinese Meishans producing a fatty animal that tastes like a cross between pork and goose. They feed those pigs a healthy diet of barley shoots. Hogs at Becker Lane Farm dine on acorns, to simulate the pre-World War II diet of the most famous hams on earth — prosciutto di Parma.

All Iowa charcuterie plate at Cityscapes.

All Iowa charcuterie plate at Cityscapes.

La Quercia in Norwalk buys those pigs to make historically correct products from high on the hog. Their hams are cherished by the best restaurants across America. In the Des Moines metro, La Quercia charcuterie is featured at Django, Splash, Splash Oyster Bar, The Cheese Shop, Gateway Market, Whole Foods, Table 128, Big City Burger & Greens, Aunt Maude’s, Centro, Exile Brewery, Tursi’s Latin King, The Café, Star Bar and most Hy-Vee stores. That list reminds us how far the city has come. A dozen years ago, top-notch charcuterie was something locals went to Italy, San Francisco or New York to experience.

Farm to fork networks and the proliferation of farmers markets now allow diners the best local foods that the black Hawkeye soil can produce. People travel to places like The Rubaiyat in Decorah, Pepper Sprout in Dubuque, Devotay in Iowa City, Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids and Isle of Capri Casino in Waterloo to experience the produce of Iowa’s top local farmers. Numerous places in metro Des Moines have a similar cache — Alba, HoQ, Eatery A, Splash, Table 128, Centro, Django, Lucca, Strudl Haus, Proof, The Café in Ames. Cyd’s Catering in Johnston specializes in farm-to-fork dinners. These represent “Iowa cuisine” in the purest definition of the term — food raised in Iowa.

Other Iowa food charms flow defiantly outside the mainstream. Sioux City developed a unique, independent fast food culture because national franchise operators once considered it demographically challenged. As a result, Tastee Inn & Out’s onion chips, and chili dogs from Milwaukee Wiener House and George’s Hot Dog Shop became as iconic in Siouxland as Big Macs elsewhere. Similar isolation inspired unique honey-simmered Two Mit Burgers in Elkader as well as statewide obsessions with two sandwiches that remain pretty much unknown outside the Midwest — pork tenderloins and loose meat.

In the late 19th century, Czech immigrants began substituting pork loins for hard-to-find veal in Cedar Rapids-style schnitzel. Today, Iowans find such fried, breaded tenderloins in fine dining establishments, diners, concession stands and even gas stations. From St. Olaf (St. Olaf Tap) to Shenandoah (The Depot), these have developed cult followings. B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli in Des Moines makes their version straight from the butcher shop with real tenderloins, not tenderized parts of the whole loin. Nick’s makes one with the Townhouse (Wellsburg, Cedar Falls) recipe that won the Iowa Pork Producers’ original best tenderloin contest.

Dom Iannarelli (Splash) made these pork belly ravioli en brodo for Bacon Fest.

Dom Iannarelli (Splash) made these pork belly ravioli en brodo for Bacon Fest.

Tenderloins are as popular here as chicken fingers. There is no other state where that is so. Even sushi joints here fry tempura tenderloins (tonkatsu) in panko batter. Pork tenderloins are usually employed on power eating sandwiches like Jethro’s Adam Emmenecker and Centro’s Kill Bill. The Chicago Cubs spring training facility in Arizona has a concession stand named The Iowa Tenderloin.

Loose meat sandwiches found fame after Muscatine’s Maid-Rite launched in 1926. They soon expanded into a carhop service, the first in America. Iowans responded to the original design of those cafes in which cooking and serving were done within three-sided counters, facilitating group discussions. Iowans feel so passionately about such traditions that Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown went to legal war with corporate headquarters to resist modernizing and several other stores left the chain.

Loose meat love extends beyond Maid-Rites. Siouxland bars began offering similar sandwiches during the Depression, still called “taverns” in at Miles Inn and Gus’ Family Restaurant (formerly Yee Old Tavern) in Sioux City and Bob’s Drive Inn in LeMars. Patty Pat’s in West Des Moines is owned by Pat Langel, who grew up in LeMars and wanted to bring “taverns” to the metro. Similarly adored are “Made Rights” at Paula’s in Valley Junction, “Rossburgers” at Ross’ Restaurant in Bettendorf, “beef delights” at Pro’s Sandwich Shop in Mason City, and “canteens” at Canteen in the Alley in Ottumwa — a diner so adored that developers built completely around it.

Iowa’s complex ethnic history created culinary diversity. Swedish-Americans in Stanton preserved gubbegott (apple sauce and Graham cracker dessert) and ostakaka (almond cheesecake). In Elk Horn, one expects to find a smörgåsbord of ethnic delights at the Danish Inn, kringle at Mill Hus Bakery, and even a convenience store there offers rullepølse (rolled pork pastrami). Historic German ambiance comes with sauerbraten and jager schnitzel in Manning and the Amana colonies. Norwegian delights are featured at Oneota Food Co Op in Decorah. Cedar Rapids’ Zindricks offers a full menu of Czech and Slovak fare. The Irish Shanti in Gunder serves “Irish sandwiches” that substitute potatoes for bread.

Iowa morels make exquisite dishes like this one from Cobble Hill with ramps, English peas and herbs in a morel sauce.

Iowa morels make exquisite dishes like this one from Cobble
Hill with ramps, English peas and herbs in a morel sauce.

Packing house towns like Denison, Perry, Columbus Junction, Dubuque and Storm Lake are filled with Mexican cafés, mostly from Michoacan and Jalisco. Des Moines’ Vietnamese cafés employ scratch cooking techniques (bone stocks) that others gave up 50 years ago. South Asians led a Fairfield food revival that now boasts more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, many of them Asian, several Ayurvedic.

Calabrese immigrants have dominated fine dining in Des Moines since before World War II. Café di Scala, Tursi’s Latin King, Sam & Gabe’s, Mr. V’s, Noah’s, Mama Lacona’s and Chuck’s all have southern Italian family histories that go back more than half a century. All serve versions of steak de burgo, a dish that is ubiquitous in Des Moines and hardly known outside the city. Gateway Market and La Quercia make “nduja,” a Calabrese salami with the texture of a pâté and the edge of an illegal import.

Local Della Terra lamb duo with minted oil, mint yogurt, Kalamata olives, chick peas and arugula at Baru66.

Local Della Terra lamb duo with minted oil, mint yogurt,
Kalamata olives, chick peas and arugula at Baru66.

Ethnic groups inspire many of Iowa’s big food events: Nordic Fest in Decorah, Tivoli Fest in Elk Horn, Italian-American Heritage Festival, CelebrAsian and Latino Heritage Festival in Des Moines, Taste of the Amanas in Amana, and Houby (morel mushroom) Days in Cedar Rapids. Specific foods are honored at Ice Cream Days in LeMars, Strawberry Days in Strawberry Point, Sauerkraut Days in Lisbon and Des Moines’ Bacon Fest — a weeklong festival that has become one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. In celebration of old agricultural traditions, the Iowa State Fair draws a million visitors in its better years and includes the nation’s largest food competition. Old Threshers Reunion brings 100,000 to Mount Pleasant each year. Seed Savers’ Heritage Farm near Decorah attracts thousands of people looking for heirloom seeds, plus hundreds more in autumn to pick the orchard’s rare apples. The World Food Prize food fest in Des Moines attracts as eclectic a group of vendors as anywhere.

The breaded pork tenderloin is an Iowa icon.

The breaded pork tenderloin is an Iowa icon.

Regions of the state evolved distinctive food specialties. Formally cattle country, western Iowa is filled with old-fashioned steak houses. Doon Steakhouse, Hawarden Steakhouse, The Fireside in Anthon, Archie’s Waeside in LeMars and Toby Jack’s Mineola all have huge personalities that belie their small town settings. So hillocky its terrain was never suitable for row crop plowing, northeast Iowa developed the most diverse produce in the state, as seen at extraordinary farmers markets in Decorah and McGregor. Buffalo love the steep terrains near the Mississippi River and local bison are famous on menus in places like Pepper Sprout in Dubuque and Kalmes in St. Donatus.

Across southern Iowa, the Mormon Trail dispatched many Mormon artisans who produced magnificent old buildings still in use as restaurants in Bonaparte Inn in Bonaparte and Mason House in Bentonsport. Later artisans created extraordinary local cheeses at Milton Creamery. The loam rich Loess Hills blessed western Iowa with distinctive fruits, particularly apples preferred by pie and cider makers.

So what is Iowa cuisine? All of this and much more. RELISH

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