The Midwest State That Has It All

Icon-status dishes, idyllic landscape and welcoming locals make Iowa a destination in itself
Photos: Todd Coleman

When I told a friend recently that I was headed to Iowa, she exclaimed, "Oh! I love Idaho!" 

Iowa conjures up everything from pork and politics to John Wayne and prairie lands, yet clearly, some people still seem to think it's another state.

"We get that kind of thing all the time," a local woman told me with a laugh, as I sat beside a roaring fireplace in the state spelled I-O-W-A, engulfed by the stuffed-animal splendor and Midwestern rococo lobby of Des Moines's Des Lux Hotel ("Des"—get it?). "When I worked for the Iowa state troopers," she continued, "I used to field calls all the time from angry drivers with speeding tickets from . . . Ohio."

"Beyond the confusing faux-homophonic clash of vowels, Iowa must be a place with a selfhood beyond statehood," I thought. I was excited to find out. First stop: a pork sandwich as big as my head.

When I arrived at Goldie's Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City, men in Day-Glo work sweats were gathered around a big table eating meaty chili, crème de menthe malts and lofty seven-layer salads. But I had come for the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich. It was voted the best in the state in 2009 by the Iowa Pork Producers Association, which is saying something about the state that produces more pork than any other. (They even invented a self-guided eating trail of every year's winners that their website triple-dog-dares you to "conquer.") When my sandwich arrived, the manager, Marilee Magg, took one look at it and ordered, "Get him a bigger one."

It was a jumbo schnitzel on a soft roll slathered with mustard and dotted with wafer-thin pickles, and it was delicious. "They should be big enough to flop out of the bun," Magg said. "Sometimes they don't even fit into the to-go box." Pro tip: You can even get one with a cheeseburger tucked inside. It's called the Magg Special. Dig down: You. Can. Do. It. 

"We have more pigs than people in Iowa, so it wasn't much of a stretch," said Herb Eckhouse, the Fonzie-esque cofounder of La Quercia, an Italian salumi producer that's uniquely positioned at the intersection of prairie and prosciutto. Salt and fat perfumed the air of his curing room, where there were so many racks of beautiful hams on display that if I stared long enough it started to look like whimsical wallpaper. 

In 2000, when he started to make prosciutto as good as any in Italy, the locals were excited . . . but a bit clueless. "People would say, 'That sounds great! What kind of cheese is it?'" Eckhouse recalled. Now Iowa is on its way to becoming the new Parma. 

Moments later, I was on my first (and only) escalator ride in a shopping mall to a farmers' market, ever. At the Winter Farmers' Market in the Kaleidoscope at the Hub, it was a touch incongruous to see an artisanal duck producer next to a Cali Nails & Tanning, but the array of farmers and produce was staggering. On the lower level, I found Andy Grinnell of the 150-year-old Grinnell Heritage Farm behind a sign emblazoned with Team Carrot—an apt name for the largest carrot farm in Iowa. Looking like a much younger version of the American Gothic guy—but with a baseball hat instead of a pitchfork—he offered me a bag of Frost-Kissed Carrots. They were sweeter than any carrot I had ever had. According to Grinnell, when still-in-the-ground carrots freeze and thaw, they're transformed into almost-candy-like wonders. I happily munched on one on my way out, walking past Burger King.

That night, I was taking pictures in Taylor's Maid-Rite, a 90-year-old lunch counter that looks straight out of a Hopper painting and serves a sandwich called loose meat. A waitress, her hands on her hips, yelled out, "Hey! You don't have Maid-Rite's where you're from?" Nope. I bit through the soft bun into an amalgam of caramelized crumbled beef mingled with mustard—while most of the filling fell onto the wrapper below. "I get it," I blurted out between mouthfuls, "this is a sloppy joe." *Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame* Things haven't changed much at this Iowan sandwich sanctuary over the years. "The cheese and ketchup are new," the manager said. "We added those 11 years ago—after a vote." 

I drove for more than an hour the next morning to the town of Pella while listening to the Music Man's "Iowa Stubborn." As I was speeding along, I felt myself slowing down. Along the way, I passed laconic farmhouses, undulating fields and chess-piece-like cows, but I was fixed on the hypnotic wind turbines turning in the distance. The propellers of the turbines eventually gave way to the rotating blades of a towering windmill in the middle of downtown Pella (it was built in the Netherlands and shipped over about 20 years ago). 

To say that this village is proud of its Dutch heritage is an understatement—even the Walmart looks like a Baroque house in Antwerp. Pella is home to staunchly old-school businesses, Ulrich's (a butcher) and Jaarsma (a bakery), chief among them. Ulrich's is improbably famous for something called Pella bologna. "It's got a real black peppery flavor," co-owner Jayme Veenstra said. "People have tried to copy it, but its been done here for 149 years." And people love it here with the passion typically reserved for a local sports team. 

Over at Jaarsma, its claim to fame is a pastry called Dutch letters, but the only letter is an s, a flaky, buttery roll filled with sweet, creamy almond paste. I think someone ate the rest of the alphabet, and I can't blame them. Behind the counter, I met Molly Rietveld, a college student home for the holidays. "I used to come here as a little girl," she said. "Working here just feels like home."

Todd Coleman is a creative director and editor at large for Tasting Table. Follow him on Instagram at @toddwcoleman.