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Bob Ray changed Iowa for the better in many ways, including the diversity of our people and food.

By Jim Duncan

Bob Ray became Governor of Iowa in 1969 and remained so until 1983. He was not the longest on the job, and others got a bigger percentage of the vote, but for most whose lives overlapped his tenure, he was, and will always be, “The Gov.” That is especially true of immigrants who were encouraged to come to Iowa like nowhere else.

Food diversity

More than anyone else, Ray changed Iowa for the better in many ways. Before 1969, ethnic diversity in Iowa was a vague dream hiding behind clouds. Food diversity was the sole province of Italians, Amana Colonies Germans, Chinese Americans and African Americans. Cedar Rapids had its Czech Town, Manning had street signs in German, and Irish pubs brought Irish whiskey and beer to Waterloo, Des Moines, Dubuque, Carroll, Elkader, Harlan and Emmetsburg, but Irish cuisine was overwhelmed here.

Scandinavian restaurants in Jewell, Roland and Decorah evolved into Scandinavian dishes at church dinners. Greek cafes in Sioux City, Des Moines, Iowa City, Mason City and elsewhere were as often more about coney island dogs as about shawarma or moussaka. The fabulous heirloom restaurant Northwestern Steak House in Mason City was the great exception, though.

The Gov changed Iowa’s food ethnicity by sheer force of personality. Before he was elected, I had never seen an avocado in Des Moines. Suddenly, because Ray created the concept of “Iowa nice,” we opened our taste buds up to the flavors of Vietnam, Laos, Jalisco, Michoacan, Aguascalientes, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Thailand, Japan, East Africa, West Africa, India and Korea. Winston Churchill said tolerance starts with sharing of foods. Ben Franklin said it was with sharing of wine. Miss Manners wrote that the dinner table was “where tolerance and all forms of polite society, except the minuet, originated.” One can argue she is wrong about the minuet, which came into prominence under French king Louis XIV, who also was making French food the envy of the world under his genius chef Francois Vatel. (Both cuisine and the dance feature in the epic movie “Vatel.”)

Once Ray opened Iowa to fresh immigrant blood and flavor, there was a saffron rush of new tastes. Ethiopian, Burmese, Argentine, Brazilian, French, Spanish, English, Fujian, southside Chicago, Pakistani, Lebanese, Hawaiian, Russian-American, Bosnian, Texan, North Carolinian, Cajun, Creole, New Mexican and Cuban cafés have opened here.

Mexican restaurants are now the most prolific genre in the metro. They replaced Italian ones, which had replaced Chinese 100 years ago. And cross-cultural traffic is a big, exciting thing. We have taco pizza and BBQ tacos, Korean burritos and kimchi breakfasts. Asian restaurants like Pho 515, Fawn’s, Pho All Seasons, Shanghai, Aroy-Dee, Pad Thai Garden, Cool Basil and Thai Flavors all have multiple Asian menus or menus that mix different Asian cuisines. Thai places might include Chinese, Laotian, Vietnamese and Korean menus. Most Indian cafés now have menus of Manchurian dishes. And almost all Indian restaurants here have menus that cover most of India. The newer ones tend to feature cuisine of Andhra Pradesh, especially Hyderabad, where nizams created the legendary Mughal cuisine. Most older ones are more rooted in North Indian cuisine. Yet tandoori (clay oven BBQ) is ubiquitous.

Bring the bread

Before The Gov, bread was utterly boring here. Some old southside Italian bakeries made decent breads. Fancy Breads is still doing it. But the excitement that immigrants brought to town inspired across-the-board bread upgrades. The city now has two businesses making tortillas plus restaurants (Malo, Gateway Market Café, El Fogon, La Baja, Chipotle, Panchero’s, etc.) and even supermarkets like La Tapatia making them fresh from scratch. La Mie created a nationally known French bakery here that laminates its croissants multiple times over. South Union Bakery is a mostly Italian place that makes equally lavish breads. Both La Mie and South Union are owned, and were created by, second-generation immigrants from Italy.

That first generation believed a great meal began with good bread, usually complimentary bread baskets. Simon’s still provides those, with Fancy Breads. Figuratively, great dining still begins with bread. As soon as people in Des Moines realized that Wonder Bread and Colonial breads were not the sine qua none of the species, they began bringing back bread from trips to New York and San Francisco. Then La Mie and South Union made that unnecessary.

Sandwich culture took off. When Panera (originally known as St. Louis Bread Company) came to town, they found steep competition from the locals. Today, Manhattan Deli even sells lobster rolls, made generously with the best Maine lobsters.

What’s on tap?

As Iowa tastes developed, lobbyists became more aggressive in persuading formerly stuck-in-the mud institutions, like the Iowa Legislature, to approve laxer rules for brewing beer and ale and for distilling local spirits. Scott Carlson of CABCO led that drive. His selling points included the adding of value to Iowa products like grain. Now Iowa produces beers, such as Peace Tree’s Femme Fatale, which are as high as 8.5% in alcohol content. The pre-Ray limit was 3.2%. Today, most taverns in town sell double-digit numbers of Iowa tap beers while it is almost impossible to find Budweiser, Miller High Life and Schlitz on tap. Those were America’s best-sellers before The Gov shook things up.

Distilleries in Iowa are building customer share in and beyond the state. Templeton Rye began that push with smart advertising selling the whiskey as an edgy product that Al Capone approved of a century ago. Mississippi River Distillery capitalized on fresh and local ingredients in their prize-winning gin and whiskey.


After years in Parma, Herb and Kathy Eckhouse moved to Des Moines to open La Quercia, a state-of-the-art meat curing company. Des Moines ranks with San Francisco and New York for renowned charcuterie, and La Quercia wins world awards competing with the best Italy and Spain have to offer.

La Quercia, now in Norwalk, produces 10 charcuterie products, nine salamis, three guanciales, three bacon/sausages, two pancetta, plus lomo and lard. Because of La Quercia, Des Moines restaurants now serve charcuterie and cheese boards, and Des Moines diners know the differences amongst speck, lomo, cinta, ‘nduja, borsellino and sopresatta. La Quercia even makes a prosciutto made with acorn-fed pigs, a practice they retrieved from ancient times that had disappeared even from Parma after World War II.

New, and revived, foods 

Once Ray’s influence began transforming Iowa taste buds into worldly connoisseurs, the state was ready to try all kinds of new, and revived, foods. Arguably, Iowa now has the most sophisticated local organic dairy industry. Dozens of small organic milk producers surround Kalona, Iowa. Unlike the larger organic dairies of California and Texas, Iowa organic dairies feature serious grazing. Other natural dairies flourish in Woodward, Fairfield, Guthrie County and Milton. Some, like Picket Fence, produce un-homogenized milk. Most, like Kalona, Radiance and Sheeder, homogenize.

Iowa pig farmers form the base of Niman Pork, a division of Niman Ranch. Famous for humanely raised livestock with old-fashioned flavors, Niman can identify the farmer who raised the pork chop you eat in a restaurant, in Des Moines or California. Their motto is “Our pigs only have one bad day.”

Attracting talent

By the turn of the current century, Iowa restaurants were reaching new levels of renown. Ray’s legacy began attracting talented chefs and restaurant owners to the state. Alex Hall is an Australian who sold five New York City cafés, moved to Des Moines and opened five more including St. Kilda’s and Franka. Sean Wilson moved here from North Carolina to open Proof. Matt Steigerwald also moved from North Carolina to open Lincoln Café in Mount Vernon. MJ Gazali is a Lebanese guy who moved here from Hollywood and opened Gazali’s.

Andrew Meek came from Wisconsin and opened Sage with John Ross. Jason Simon moved back to Iowa from New Orleans and gave Des Moines Alba, Eatery A, Parlo, Motley School Tavern and, soon, Nico’s and The Continental. One of his former chefs, Joe Tripp, moved back from Denver and opened Harbinger and Little Brother. Irina Khartchenko came from Russia and opened Irina’s. Chrissy Johnson moved here from Chicago to open Joppa Experience.

French chef David Baruthio moved to Des Moines from Europe to chef for Steve Logsdon at Lucca and would later open Baru 66, Nomad and three other cafés in the metro. Andrew Wilson moved here after stints in Memphis and Healdsburg to run the kitchen at Proudfoot & Bird.

Companies like Orchestrate and Full Court Press kept local talent in town to run eclectic new restaurants. Orchestrate created Centro, South Union Café, Django, Malo, Zombie Burger and Gateway Market Café. Full Court’s contributions include Hessen Haus, Royal Mile, Red Monk, Fong’s Pizza, The Library, Rita’s Cantina, The Chicken, High Life Lounge, Lucky Horse and Buzzard Billy’s.

Thank you, Bob Ray.