In the 1945 movie State Fair, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, a stalwart Iowa farmer's wife is overcome with emotion when her mincemeat wins a top prize: "I've got the most a woman can get in life!" she says. Sixty years later, victory at the Iowa State Fair can still move people to tears. For 11 days every August, 800-odd contestants prepare 12,000 dishes to compete for $60,000 in prize money, making Iowa's the largest food competition of any American fair. The nearly 900 categories range from the forthright (Cooking with Pumpkin) to the esoteric (Recipes & Remedies of Yesteryear: Fried Cornmeal Mush) to the comical (Ugliest Cake).
One unseasonably chilly morning last August, in a squat redbrick building on the fairgrounds, four judges sat in the front of the auditorium and tasted about 70 entries in the Perfect Potluck Pleasers category. The scene could have been plucked straight from the 1945 movie but for one notable difference: Among the crowd of 60 women scrutinizing the judges' body language was a mancontestant 28729, Jeremy Jackson.
Rail-thin and wearing a short-sleeved plaid shirt over jeans, Jackson, 32, looks like an adult Opie, if Mayberry's favorite son had grown up to be a garage rocker. In reality, Jackson is a cookbook author with a cult following for his stellar recipes and quirky, deadpan wit: "presidents should choke on cornbread, not pretzels," he writes in his introduction to The Cornbread Book, a compendium of 50 recipes using corn products. Desserts That Have Killed Better Men Than Me, his second cookbook, extols the virtues of full-fat cream, yolk-laden custards and buttery crusts. (It may also be the only cookbook in history to use the word anyhoo.) His latest, Good Day for a Picnic: Simple Food That Travels Well, published in May, is full of recipes he developed during his summers in Iowa City, where he received his master's in fiction writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and where he has lived for the past five years.