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We have nothing, officially. Why not?

By Jim Duncan

Most states have official state foods. Some have many. Alabama’s got six — a state nut (pecan), fruit (blackberry), tree fruit (peach), dessert (Lane cake), legume (peanut) and vegetable (sweet potato). Oklahoma has an entire official state meal that includes 12 courses. That state’s official state vegetable is actually some fruit — watermelon. Texas, of course, has 12 different foods that are official something or other. South Dakota has an official state “nosh,” the chislic, which is a skewer of meat, and an official dessert, kuchen, which is a dough pie filled with custard and fruit and topped with streusel. New Mexico’s “official state question” is “red or green?” which pertains to salsa on enchiladas.
All such designations yield dividends to the states that have them, mainly in tourism and marketing. In Iowa, we have nothing, officially. Why not? We are probably the state most associated with foods. Unofficially, we are the corn state, the pork state, the turkey state, the egg state and the soybean state. People travel from all over the world to forage for our morel mushrooms in spring and our ceps in autumn. They come to hunt our deer, pheasants, wild turkeys and even doves. There are bacon tours of the state, and we have even held bacon festivals that sold out the Iowa Events Center. In August and September, Iowa’s tomatoes are the envy of gourmets from coast to coast. We grow walnuts in all 99 counties. We are the nation’s leader in humanely raised pig farming. We have as rich a history of immigration as any state, making our cuisine as catholic as anyone’s.
Relish proposes legislative consideration for one obvious official Iowa food category — the sandwich. Each of these possibilities are overly qualified for the job. All represent Iowa historically, agriculturally, culturally and in ways that the rest of America considers positively.

Breaded pork tenderloin 
Indiana has challenged Iowa for the right to call themselves the birthplace of the breaded pork tenderloin (BPT). They can show a menu that offers one by name earlier than any from Iowa. However, Cedar Rapids’ large Czech and Slovak population predates any Hoosier menu listing by decades. Bohemians were working in Cedar Rapids by 1850. Since wiener schnitzel was a popular Bohemian dish, it is likely that immigrants to Linn County tried to duplicate it. Because veal was rare and expensive, it is likely they substituted pork, which was plentiful and relatively inexpensive.
Many of the Czechs who settled in Cedar Rapids worked in the Sinclair meatpacking plant. Owner T.M. Sinclair, an Irish immigrant himself, recruited them. According to Sherri Dagel House in “A Czech Community,” it is “likely, letters written home by Sinclair employees accounted for the migration of thousands of other Czechs to Cedar Rapids.” Schweinefleisch schnitzel likely was eaten as a sandwich by blue-collar workers in Iowa. By the late 19th century, that became the American way.
The BPT is the werewolf of sandwiches, a porcine shapeshifter. The pork is rarely tenderloin. Only B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli in Des Moines claims to actually use real tenderloin in their BPT. Usually, the meat is the much larger loin, or pork steak, or shoulder.
It is pounded for tenderization but to wildly various degrees. Because real tenderloin is tender in its own right, it needs little or no pounding. The tougher the meat, the more it is pounded and the thinner it becomes. Versions like those at Smitty’s in Des Moines and Newton’s in Waterloo are twice the size of their buns.
What else goes on the sandwich is up to the imagination. Some think lettuce and mayo. Others insist on banana peppers. Ketchup is considered necessary by some and anathema by others. Mustard, pickles and hot sauce are popular additions. Shredded cabbage and even shredded winter radish are almost essential accompaniments in Japanese restaurants, where BPTs are known as tonkatsu. Chinese places offer hot chili oil and soy sauce.

Loose meat sandwich
Loose meat sandwiches have fewer forms but far more names. In Sioux City and Le Mars, they are known as “Charlie Boys” or “Tastees.” In Cedar Rapids, they are called “Loosies.” In Ottumwa, they are “Canteens.” In Bondurant, they are called “Butlers.” Maid-Rite was founded in Muscatine and spread all over the state. Paula’s in West Des Moines calls their version “Made Right.” Ross’ Restaurant in Bettendorf calls them “Rossburgers.” They are not called “Sloppy Joes.” That is something else.
Hamburger meat is seasoned and cooked by steaming/simmering while it is being broken down. Sometimes fat is drained, sometimes not. Sometimes onions are added to the cooking, sometimes not. The sandwich can be ordered “wet,” “dry” or regular in many places. “Wet” means the bun is soaked in fat and moisture run off. Sandwiches are served with a choice of mustard, raw onions, pickles and sometimes ketchup and hot sauce. They are usually served with a spoon because a bun cannot contain all the goodness.
They inspire road trips to Sioux City, where they were first served free at Happy Hour at Miles Inn, where the name “Charlie Boy” originated. Also in Sioux City, they are served at Tastee Inn & Out with legendary onion chips, which are fried like onion rings but cut differently.
Others take loose meat road trips to Bondurant’s Brick Street Market & Café, Marshalltown’s Taylor’s, Newton’s Dan’s, Le Mars’ Bob’s, Ottumwa’s Canteen Lunch in the Alley, Cedar Rapids’ Loosies, and Valley Junction’s Paula’s. Loosies and Paula’s both also offer homemade pie selections, another disappearing Iowa icon.
Several of these places feature nostalgic horseshoe-shaped counter dining. These were part of all Maid-Rites in kinder, gentler times. They allow everyone to face everyone else and facilitate conversations. That was a very Iowa thing, a version of the democratic idea that we are all in this together.

If Great Britain can proclaim chicken tikka masala as its national dish, then Iowa is a taco state. Mexican restaurants have led the state’s new restaurant openings for a decade and have a much higher rate of success than other genre. Tacos have been a big deal in Des Moines since the 1960s. Tasty Taco makes a deep-fried flour tortilla version that wins awards. Its mother store is just a couple blocks from the State Capitol, too.
The main taco debates are flour or corn, and hard or soft (tortillas)? Then comes the main fillings: pastor, carnitas, chorizo from the pig; burger, cheeks, tongue, asada, tripe, birria or barbacoa from the cow or lamb; cactus or squash blossoms for vegetarians; white or dark meat chicken. Garnishes can be lettuce and cheese for American style, or radish, cilantro, lime and onions for Mexican style. Salsas are offered in three colors and as many as five styles, some very hot.

Bacon, lettuce and tomato
The BLT sandwich is our seasonal nominee. Sure, they can be served all year, but many assert that they reach almighty gloriousness in Iowa in August and September. That is homegrown tomato season, and the same rich, black topsoil that makes Iowa the king of corn and soybeans, produces the best tomatoes on Earth.
Tomato gurus like Larry Cleverley in Mingo and Bob Braverman in Johnson County grew an Iowa market for heirloom tomatoes that Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah had preserved from extinction. There is an incredible romance in ordering a BLT with a specific tomato. Listen to the seductive music of their names: Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Brandywine, Big Rainbow, Yellow Ox Heart.
In Iowa, bacon choices are even more diverse than tomatoes. State Historical Museum Curator Leo Landis, nicknamed Professor of Bacon, says he has visited 70 different Hawkeye state lockers in search of his personal favorite bacon. There are still several on his list. He says Iowa is blessed with so many bacon makers in large part because of our abundant deer population.
“A lot of those lockers survive off deer hunting season.”
BLT lovers aren’t as liberal as those of other sandwiches. Besides the big three essentials plus bread, they mostly just add mayonnaise or sometimes vinegar and oil dressing. Bread choices are marvelously improved from 30 years ago, particularly in Des Moines where La Mie’s French delights compete with South Union’s Italian wonders.

Hot beef sandwich
The nation was led by a President and First Lady from Iowa during parts of the Great Depression. Herbert and Lou Hoover promoted dishes that stretched the budget with cheap additives. Corned beef and roast beef hash, chicken and noodles and hot beef sandwiches (HBS) were targeted because potatoes and flour were cheaper than meat. All those dishes are now often relegated to the nostalgia shelf.
The HBS is most comfortable these days in old-fashioned restaurants like Morg’s in Waterloo, Tommy’s in Davenport, Dottie’s Café in Dubuque, Crouse Café in Indianola, The Depot in Shenandoah, Robin’s Nest Café in Clarinda, Fort Colony in Fort Madison, Cook’s Café in Sheldon, Lakeshore Cafe in Storm Lake, Family Table in Spencer, Sioux County Livestock Co. in Sioux Center, Cook’s Café in Mason City, plus Drake Diner and The Dam Pub in Des Moines, and Machine Sheds in Urbandale and Davenport. (The writer admits he is a HBS addict and travels too much in Iowa.)

Getting it done
The Iowa Legislature could schedule a vote on official state sandwich designation after a week, or month, of lunching with each nominee’s sponsor. The Pork Producers could serve BPTs, the Cattlemen’s Association could offer loose meat or HBS, Latino Heritage Festival could make tacos, and the Tourism Office  could serve BLTs.
Sandwiches should only be the beginning. Let’s be more like Alabama and Texas and honor many foods. Consider a good legislative debate about desserts. Did you know that the brownie was discovered when a distracted (some say drunk) baker at Chicago’s Palmer House forgot to add yeast to a chocolate walnut cake recipe? The Palmer House still serves the exact same recipe. Iowa grows black walnuts in all 99 counties. The brownie could face off with apple pie. Iowa is home to incredible apple diversity. More than 900 varieties are growing in Winneshiek County alone. The state is also birthplace to the Jonathan, the most popular apple in America for decades.
Then there could be state soup faceoffs between squash (the acorn squash is indigenous to Polk County) and sweet corn. Or appetizer arguments, like onion rings (and chips) versus morel mushrooms. Or a soy food fight between tofu and edamame.
Plus, if the legislature is arguing about Iowa foods, it’s taking a break from its usual more adversarial state. Would that not be a good thing?

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