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A Competitive Cook's Wild Ride

A young cookbook author brings his best recipes to the Iowa State Fair. What will win—wholesome food or back-of-the-box cuisine?

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 man—contestant 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.

Jackson's trip to Des Moines was fueled by childhood memories of the Missouri State Fair. "I remember seeing row upon row of cookies and only one plate with a blue ribbon on it. I thought, 'Whoa! That person must be a great cook!'" he said. "Now I'm a cookbook author, and it's hard for me to reconcile the state fair cuisine I associate with my grandmother—dishes using canned vegetables or cake mixes—with where I am now. I'm interested in the gap between those worlds, and I was wondering what would happen if I entered the contests."

So he brought three new recipes to the fair, including tartlets of grated apples topped with a crumble of orange zest, almonds, butter and brown sugar. They sat on one of three long banquet tables next to the rest of the Perfect Potluck Pleasers. His tartlets had an intense, rosy glow from the apple skins, but they seemed to get lost among the mile-high cheesecakes and the mud pies blanketed with whipped cream.

"If I came to this potluck, I'd be scared," Jackson quipped when fair volunteers wheeled the tables into the auditorium and the spectators rose, craning their necks to check out the competition. Two particularly striking entries were a meat loaf wearing a cape of melted provolone cheese and a casserole served in an enormous gourd with a jack-o'-lantern face drawn on it.

But Jackson grew serious as the audience settled back into their seats. "I should have picked a different category," Jackson whispered to his girlfriend, Kelly Smith, a poet. "This one's way too crowded."

"You should have alliterated the title of your recipe," Smith replied.

The auditorium fell silent as runners began ferrying entries from the banquet tables to the judging table; an air of solemnity descended upon the proceedings. When the honky-tonk hit "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" boomed through the walls from the margarita concession next door, nobody in the auditorium even flinched. Halfway through the competition, a runner placed Jackson's tartlets on the judging table. A judge lifted a forkful to her mouth, chewed, swallowed and then, tilting her head back slightly, silently mouthed one word that everyone in the stands still heard loud and clear: Yum.

Jackson grew up on a Missouri farm in a family of cooking virtuosos. "My grandmother was one of those legendary farmwife cooks," he said. The lemon meringue pie she made was such a star at the weekly church potluck that no one else dared bring a rival; only the first eight people in line got a taste.

It was from watching his grandmother that Jackson learned kitchen basics, such as how to make piecrust, as well as a thriftiness that works its way into recipes such as "scrap-top cobblers," made from pastry leftovers stashed in the freezer. But as Jackson became a better cook, he realized that his own style diverged from his grandmother's. "What she cooked was very good, but she didn't mind using a box of Jell-O in a dessert," Jackson said.

In his parents' kitchen, Jell-O was verboten, and refined sugar and white flour were used sparingly. Idealistic back-to-the-landers, his parents believed in eating natural foods. They raised their own cattle, chickens and ducks and grew most of their own produce.

Taking a break from the food contests, Jackson visited the barns. ALL FANS BLOW DOWNWIND read signs near enormous jet-black Simmental steers napping in orderly rows. Nearby, four adolescent boys stood in the show ring next to lithe lambs they'd raised as members of their 4-H clubs. Once judged, the winning lambs would be sold to the highest bidders.

In the street outside the auditorium, commotion reigned. A pair of clowns tumbled out of a vintage Studebaker and were soon mobbed by a crowd of kids and their parents. A huckster pitched "Super Chamois" over a jerry-rigged amplifier, demonstrating the car-washing cloth on a disembodied hood.

But inside, where the judges were gearing up to announce the winning Perfect Potluck Pleasers, all was quiet and tense. There seemed to be a tie, and judges called four dishes—Jackson's included—back to the table to taste again. But when they announced the winners, his tartlets hadn't made the cut. Grand champion was the dish in the jack-o'-lantern gourd, a pumpkin casserole. A whoop went up at the back of the auditorium, and a judge asked the winner to stand and recite the ingredients in the dish, which she did: hamburger, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of tomato paste, a can of pumpkin puree, a block of pepper-jack cheese and a box of pasta shells.

Though Jackson was disappointed by the loss, the close call seemed to have energized him. "At least I was in contention there," he said. He and his girlfriend stayed in their seats as a new crop of judges took their places for the corn competition. Jackson had entered a salad of fresh corn, green beans and toasted hazelnuts in an olive oil vinaigrette.

But the judging of the corn dishes soon devolved into chaos. Runners brought too many dishes for tasting at once; the judges lost track of what they had tried and what they hadn't, and while they tallied up their scores, Jackson's salad still sat untouched. One judge noticed it and took a cursory bite, but by then the group seemed to have already chosen the finalists.

An infant screamed, breaking the silence in the auditorium. "That's how I feel," Jackson said. When a judge announced the winners, Jackson wasn't among them. The blue ribbon went to Suellen Calhoun for her Iowa corn cake with rhubarb sauce. Calhoun, a receptionist from North Des Moines and a nine-year veteran of the fair's food competitions, had already won seven first-place ribbons this year, and there were still two days left in the fair.

"During contest season, I go to bed at two, and I'm up at five," Calhoun said. "I have my strategies. No fish—it's really hard to get by the judges because they're very traditional, meat-and-potatoes-type people. But when people from food companies do the judging, they want the cutting edge, so you can have more fun with your recipes." Calhoun emphasized that it had taken 60 entries this year to win her ribbons. "Even when you're a winner, you're still a loser a lot of the time."

A woman sitting behind her overheard Calhoun's demurral and butted in: "It's an art with her. If she's in it, we don't stand a chance."

Later that afternoon, Jackson won a ribbon, a third place for his raspberry yogurt pudding, a frothy custard made with vanilla bean-infused cream, yogurt and fresh raspberries. The judge's remarks: "Delicious! The flavor was awesome, but we'd like to have seen a bit more color." However, Jackson and Smith weren't around to hear them; they were acres away, lounging on the steps of the Agriculture Building, which displayed Iowa's finest fruits and vegetables.

Jackson was delighted to get the news, but he seemed a bit dejected nonetheless. "Those dishes made with cans of mushroom soup and Jell-O made me feel like I was competing against my grandmother. It just seemed very far away from simple, honest, wholesome ingredients," he said. "What I like to cook is more like what my great-grandmother cooked 75, 100 years ago."

Hopping to his feet, he said, "Let's go get corn dogs." Then, acknowledging the apparent tension between corn dogs and honest, wholesome food, he hastened to add, "They batter them to order here!"

Matt Lee and Ted Lee are the authors of The Lee Bros. Cookbook, which is scheduled to be published in the fall of 2006.

Published August 2005
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