Eating in Iowa: Farm-Fresh, Fried and Frugal

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The lunch and dinner I enjoyed on a recent day in Iowa didn't belong on the same planet, let alone in the same state. The first was a sandwich of loose ground meat on a workaday hamburger bun slathered with melted cheese, ketchup and mustard, served in a drab old building underneath a parking garage. The second, served in a reconstructed barn surrounded by miles of corn, was polenta-stuffed zucchini with kale, eggplant and squash, the vegetables raised on site and the polenta made from corn ground just 50 miles away.

Yet both meals were decidedly Iowan, and dismantled the illusion that in three days of cruising the state's two-lane highways I could somehow pithily define its food. Really, the only thing every meal -- and I had about five a day -- had in common was their prices. That polenta entree, by far the most elegantly presented of my month on the road, was just $13.

The sandwich, meanwhile, was $3.60. Iowans may already know where it came from: Canteen Lunch in Ottumwa, a modest meatpacking city of 25,000. Since 1936, the restaurant has sat in a squat, yellow box of a building; it didn't budge when a municipal parking garage was literally built over it. (If you follow a GPS there, you'll find yourself in the garage; otherwise cut down an alley off South Court Street.)

The experience at the lunch counter feels very middle school cafeteria: a lunch lady look-alike takes your order and spoons loose ground beef -- sloppy joe without the slop -- onto a bun, slathers on extras, wraps it and hands it to you. (What, you wanted a plate?) It's a signature Iowa lunch, generically known as "a loose meat sandwich." Here it was simply a Canteen.

The Canteen is proof that if an expert combines fat, carbs, sugar and salt in just the right ratio, the result can be worth the calories and ensuing sluggishness. I augmented the coming lethargy by ordering a strawberry malt ($3.95), after being encouraged to do so by the visitors next to me, a couple from Georgia who had come up to Iowa to look at a used RV. (In Ottumwa, that counts as out-of-state tourism.)

For that farm dinner, I headed 120 miles west (driving long distances burns calories, right?) to the 400-person town of Orient, or, more accurately, to the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center (wallace.org) outside it. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Mr. Wallace, who was secretary of agriculture (and then vice president) under Franklin D. Roosevelt, was raised in the main house, now a gift shop; the center, in that reconstructed barn, is part of a nonprofit that promotes "local food, sustainable agriculture and civility." The restaurant, also housed in the barn, is only open on Fridays and some Saturdays. Whatever does not come from the farm itself comes from a producer somewhere in Iowa, I was told by my server, who dutifully provided all the sustainable-locavore-other-buzzword details -- almost, but not quite, to the point of parody.

Everything was as fresh as the canteen sandwich was processed: a $7 "cheese and relish plate" had bursting cherry tomatoes, crisp cauliflower lightly marinated in vinegar, pickled beets, and a crumbly local Cheddar, then came the polenta-stuffed zucchini. Outside, farmland stretched to the horizon, inside, my wallet barely stretched at all -- I was out $25, including tip.

During the rest of my sprint around the state I would continue to Ping-Pong between fatty gluttony and farm freshness.

More gluttony: the pork tenderloin sandwich, which has spawned best-in-state competitions and the cleverly named Des Loines blog. Newcomers will laugh at the little bun haplessly trying to cover the enormous tenderloin, pounded into the irregular shapes that often resemble Eastern European nations. For my representative pork tenderloin sandwich, I decided on Goldie's Ice Cream Shoppe (goldiesicecreamshoppe.com), an ice cream stand turned diner in Prairie City, whose $5.98 version won best of show in 2009 from the Iowa Pork Producers.

The staff was gentle to a newcomer, explaining that the conventional toppings were pickle, raw onion, ketchup and mustard. Ketchup and mustard seemed heavy-handed, so I went for just pickles and onions to add a little pop. When the sandwich arrived, I struggled with its size -- I had been given only a knife, not a fork. I gave the server a perplexed look. "Cut it in half," she said. I felt, and not for the first time on this trip, like a bumbling foreigner.

Back to lean and green: Fairfield, home to the Maharishi University of Management, which calls itself a "home of consciousness-based education," has more than its share of vegetarian cafeterias and restaurants. I went to the Golden Dome Market and Cafe, near (but alas, not in) the campus's two golden domes. The vegetarian buffet ($7.50 a pound) yielded some saag paneer, a bean taco loaded with vegetables, some tasty artichoke lasagna and a piece of fresh peach blueberry pie.

Iowa's farm-fresh side melds with its gluttonous side at the Des Moines Farmers Market (desmoinesfarmersmarket.com), which takes over a chunk of the capital's downtown every Saturday morning, May through October. One minute I was dipping pretzel sticks into eight flavors of artisan goat cheese from Reichert's Dairy Air or enjoying herb lemonade (infused with rosemary, thyme, lemon balm and ginger) from Blue Gate Farm. I followed this up with something called "Breakfast Ice Cream," offered at a dairy stand for $5: a server put glazed doughnut holes in a bowl, covered them with bacon ice cream and add crumbled bacon and maple syrup. Big mistake. Unlike the Canteen, this unholy combo of sugar, salt and grease did not come to an agreement.

I did find a truly harmonious greasy-locavore masterpiece, however, in Iowa City, just what you would expect from a college town in a farm state. Short's Burger and Shine (shortsburgerandshine.com) gets its black Angus beef for its long list of burgers from a farm 26 miles outside of town; its buns are baked locally and its 10 taps filled with Iowa craft beers. (Another option: its own bean-based burgers.)

At the bar, I ordered a Gravity burger, with caramelized onions, bacon, tame green chili sauce and a swipe of jalapeño flavored cream cheese and buried under a load of fries for $9.49. After sampling several brews, I ended up with a pint of Golden Nugget I.P.A., and wish I could have stayed for more, but solo traveling means you are the permanent designated driver.

Indeed, I logged about 800 in-state miles in under four days. But Iowa turned out to be the most pleasant and picturesque of the states I've driven through so far: It's not dead flat, at least not for long stretches; its gently sloping farmland reads like some sort of fantasy Americana: deep-green soy fields, wavy rows of corn (which I tried not to think of ending up as high fructose corn syrup), picturesque red barns and the occasional old could-be-haunted farmhouses.

I did miss the most famous house in Iowa: the "American Gothic" house in Eldon, where the Pitchfork Pie Stand operates on summer weekends. I had planned a visit, but read on its Web site, TheWorldNeedsMorePie.com, that it would be closed the weekend I was in the state. It was probably for the best: the world may need more pie, but after three days of eating in Iowa, I sure didn't.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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