Bites, fries, fluff and a squealer: Iowa State Fair food previewed

The 2019 Iowa State Fair. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

I’m what you might call a “fair-foodie”: an aficionado of the gastrointestinally punishing caloric arms race one can only experience at the Iowa State Fair. With the 2020 Iowa State Fair canceled due to COVID-19, I missed out on my annual survey of the creative dishes it has to offer. So on Monday afternoon, when the Iowa State Fair’s Facebook page ran a livestream of top 10 new foods this year, I was already tucking in my bib.

The contest

The 63 dishes debuting at this year’s fair had been winnowed down to 10 semifinalists to be tasted and ranked by a team of judges, who then selected the three finalists. The finalists will be pitted against each other on the Iowa State Fair’s app, where fellow fair foodies can vote for their favorites from Aug. 12–16.

Personally, my main criteria for good fair food is simple: it should make me feel dirty in a good way, and it should ideally be handheld enough to be edible while walking down Grand.

The judges did not seem to share my rigid opinions about what constitutes good fair food, but they did have some interesting observations to make. One surprising theme was items being designated as “breakfast food,” despite only vague connections to breakfast. For example, the Cinnamon Pretzel Bites met the definition because they can be ordered with a coffee icing, which is apparently all it takes.

The Peanut Butter and Fluff Cookie Dough by Dipped in Chocolate, which may be enjoyed dipped or un-dipped in chocolate (despite the vendor’s name), apparently contained peanut butter krispies such as one might find in a Scotcheroo. The judges remarked that this brought an enticing textural element to the dessert. One judge also suggested this may qualify the Peanut Butter and Fluff Cookie Dough by Dipped in Chocolate as a breakfast item.

My takeaways

Three culinary delights rose to the top and were designated finalists: the Chicken and Egg Salad with Indian Fry Bread Chips from the Iowa Egg Council/Iowa Poultry Association’s Cluckin’ Coop; Peanut Butter and Fluff Cookie Dough by Dipped in Chocolate; and Island Noodles’ eponymous dish with Teriyaki Chicken.

The Underdog: A curiously well-researched poutine from Duke’s Poutine, a traveling, family-run concession stand from Minnesota. Owner Matt Ribar told livestream host Scott Siepker he and his wife traveled to Quebec to sample poutine from every restaurant that claimed it had the “best” or the “original” version of the dish. They then compared and contrasted the different takes on the dish and arrived at the Platonic Ideal of a poutine: fresh-cut French fries, fresh white cheddar cheese curds (NOT battered or fried) and turkey gravy. The judges agreed it tasted “almost like Thanksgiving dinner on a French fry.”

Video still of Matt Ribar of Duke’s Poutine discussing poutine research with Scott Siepker

The Snub: Stockman’s Inn’s Bacon Mac Dog, which seemed to be a clear favorite in the livestream chat. The hot dog topped with macaroni and cheese and bacon bits caused quite a stir among the judges, too, mostly because it was unclear whether it was intended to be eaten with hands or with a fork. I’ll leave that question up to Miss Manners.

In My Hand on Grand: The Peanut Butter Squealer by Waffle Chix, consisting of breakfast sausage and bacon wrapped in a waffle and drizzled with peanut butter and maple syrup. I had no idea I was rooting for this one until it didn’t crack the top three. My only explanation is that it ticks all my boxes for the kind of très classique fair food I want to eat while getting a terrible sunburn. And it may even count as breakfast.

Video still of a Peanut Butter Squealer.

This year’s fair will take place at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines from Aug. 12–22, 2021.

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