Even though Nebraska is where I was born and raised, my husband and I spend the last few years living in Iowa just before we moved to the East Coast. We lived near the capitol city of Des Moines and were amazed at all of the events and wonderful lifestyle opportunities it provided. So, in an effort to not leave out all that we miss from that area, and to appease our Hawkeye friends and family, this week’s Top 5 is dedicated to the Iowans.
Started in 1854 and consistently ranked as one of the best fairs in the country, the Iowa State Fair is a must-see attraction for many people every August. Last year alone, over one million attended during the course of the 11 day span. It is famous for great food, exceptional art/craft entries, first-class entertainment, the best agriculture and livestock the state has to offer, and of course the Butter Cow. 2011 celebrated the 100 year anniversary of this unique exhibit. Every year a life-sized cow is sculpted from butter and displayed in a climate controlled cooler within the Ag Building. Be prepared to stand in line for a glimpse; this work of art is one of the essential places to stop. Another anticipated highlight is the latest food-on-a-stick. Always wanting to push the boundaries, each fair boasts a list of new delicacies added to the already vast menu. If your waistline and arteries can take it you can find everything from eggs, deep-fried Twinkies, pickles, veggie corndogs, fried butter, caramel apples, and even pork chops all served on a stick. There are a few healthy options too, but let’s face it; it’s only once a year and what’s a state fair without some funnel cake and cotton candy? Don’t worry though, the fair grounds are massive and you will work off many of the calories just trying to take in all the different buildings and participating in the fun activities. There is a large carnival, numerous vendors, live entertainment, and educational areas. The one thing I am honestly always amazed by the most is what the great people of Iowa create, grow, or bake and bring to the fair. The competition is stiff and submissions are at professional levels. Set your calendar reminders now, the Iowa State Fair opens this year August 9th – 19th.
If you can’t wait till August for great food, beautiful produce, and hand-crafted merchandise, just stop by the Downtown Farmers’ Market in Des Moines this weekend. They are open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 7:00am to noon during the months of May through October. Iowans likes to do things right and their citizens take great pride in locally produced items, so this is not your typical weekend market. Participants set up their booths over 10 blocks, and provide the best of their fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, plants for your garden, craft items, delicious breakfast food and beverage, as well as baked goods and other culinary delights. Every weekend they have different activities, local groups and sponsors, live music, and a big crowd. All of the colors, people, and art make it a great place take the whole family. I would suggest going early if possible to get a place to park, find the best selection of produce, and head out before the sun gets too hot. But the vendors bring plenty to go around and you won’t be disappointed whenever you show up. Towards the end of the season when more is being harvested, they also offer a mid-week market on Wednesdays 10:30am to 1:30pm August 22nd– October 10th. And don’t forget to keep them in mind for holiday gifts and all your cooking and entertaining needs. They open twice more for a Winter Market in November and December. It’s a great atmosphere full of life and a photographer’s playground. Even if you don’t end up purchasing a week’s worth of vegetables, it’s well worth your time just to go and check it out.
Do you find yourself missing Grandma’s farmhouse cooking? Stop by The Machine Shed restaurant in Davenport or Des Moines (also located in Lake Elmo, MN; Rockford, IL; Appleton, WI; and Pewaukee, WI) for a taste of home. This is truly the one place that comes the closest to serving up a great menu just like Grandma used to make. They encompass the entire family style, too. The décor is straight from the farm with equipment, tin signs, and big wooden tables adorning the rooms. When ordering dinner, they start you out with the “fixins” fresh baked bread, coleslaw, and cottage cheese. Then they bring out your entrée, which I would highly suggest getting the sweet potato fries as the side. They offer some lighter lunch options, but nothing will leave you hungry. And if breakfast is your favorite, be prepared for a hearty one. Featured on the Travel Channel’s Food Paradise program, The Machine Shed has been voted the best. On the weekends you can dig into their buffet and try a little of everything, waffles, omelets, potatoes, biscuits and gravy, pastry items, fresh fruit, and French toast. Or order straight from the menu any day of the week to try specialties like Carrot Cake Pancakes or an award-winning Famous Cinnamon Roll. If your order comes with eggs make sure to tell your server, “I love eggs” and they’ll throw in an extra one for free. As if the food wasn’t reason enough to visit, they also have a great store of items to browse through while you wait, and the Des Moines location is affiliated with the Living History Farms. Check out the Shed’s website for upcoming events such as cooking classes and book signings as well as a few of the chef’s own recipes. With mouthwatering food and tables big enough to seat the whole family plus the hired hands, The Machine Shed tops my list as the resturant with the best home cooking.
Like stepping into Holland, Pella, Iowa is a quaint town with exquisite Dutch architecture. Beautiful streets with perfectly manicured gardens line the square and history abounds at every corner. During the mid-1800s a group of Dutch immigrants settled the area and took painstaking measures to make it feel like home. Thankfully, future residences have also taken up the cause and preserve their beloved culture. Just driving to the area one can tell immediately from the large windmills and ornate trim decorations that they have arrived in Pella. You can visit the town anytime; however, their yearly celebration of Tulip Time is what draws in the masses. Keeping with their Dutch roots, the town is flooded with beautiful gardens of tulips. Every color and shape imaginable, they become the main attraction every spring. Pella has set aside the first weekend in May to have an all-out town celebration honoring their history and inviting others to get a glimpse of their lives and stunning flowers. Residents dress in traditional outfits complete with wooden shoes. The weekend hosts loads of evens including a parade, tours of the historical village and museum, a Dutch craft market, quilt show, antique implement display, street dance, and also features the Tulip Queen coronation. Watch craftsmen carve your very own pair of wooden shoes and make sure to partake in the local food, especially the Dutch Letters. Take your camera, because there are so many beautiful areas you don’t have to be an expert to capture gorgeous shots. Less than one hour from Des Moines, a trip to Pella during Tulip Time is something you don’t want to miss.
Who knew Iowa was home to so many wonderful events and opportunities? One more to add to the list is the National Balloon Classic and U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame in Indianola. Just 20 miles south of Des Moines, every summer the town comes alive with hundreds of brightly colored hot air balloons. Pilots and balloon enthusiasts descend from all over the country to be a part of the week long festivities, competitions, and races. As a spectator, you can visit the field to watch balloons inflate, ascend, and even light up on the ground at dusk for the Nite-Glow event. The schedule also includes concerts, a wine night, and firework displays. One of the best parts about the National Balloon Classic is the prices. All morning admissions are free and after that it’s only $3 for adults or $10 per carload, kids 12 and under are free. Swing by the National Balloon Museum and Hall of Fame while you are in town and set up a tour of the local balloon factory, too. If you are more daring and want the full experience, contact On The Fly for a once in a lifetime experience to take a hot air balloon ride for yourself. The museum is open 7 days a week from May through December, but the National Balloon Classic is just once a year. Mark your calendars for 2012, July 27th– August 4th.
What do you love most about Iowa? Feel free to share your favorites places and activities below.