Food, Travel and Tech

1 million people will visit the Iowa State Fair this month for its famous concessions–here's what to eat while you're there

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, holds ice cream while greeting attendees at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. After speaking, the former vice president didn't explicitly call Trump a white supremacist, but said he tries to curry favor with them.
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Iowa State Fair has served as the inspiration for books, movies and a Broadway musical. It's the only fair listed in The New York Times bestselling travel book, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die." It has been dubbed "America's classic state fair" and is one of the largest in the country.

The inaugural Iowa State Fair in 1854 cost $323 to put on. Now, the eleven-day event has an operating budget of $25 million, plus capital improvement projects, Mindy Williamson, marketing director at Iowa State Fair, tells CNBC Make It.

In addition to voting for the best hog caller and crowning the annual Fair Queen, there's a central attraction that makes the Iowa State Fair an essential stop for U.S. presidents, political hopefuls (22 will visit this year alone), and more than 1 million travelers from around the world: food.

With 200 food stands, myriad fried concoctions and 80 different types of food-on-a-stick — including salad, hard-boiled eggs, deep fried hot dogs and chocolate covered cheesecakes — the Iowa State Fair rakes in millions from food alone each year. The latest audit from 2017 found that the Iowa State Fair made $4 million from concessions.

The 445-acre Iowa State Fairground is over 130 years old and is home to the country's largest state fair foods department, receiving the greatest number of entries for food contests with nearly 900 food classes judged annually along with hundreds of individual entries. It is one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country.

Richard M. Nixon (C) at box lunch at Iowa state fair.
Hank Walker | The LIFE Picture Collection | Getty Images

"[The fair tagline] 'Nothing Compares' is what we live by," Williamson says. "We have that slice of Americana and invite innovation, so we give people tradition but also something new to look forward to."

The fair's concessions are so renowned that a special cookbook is published every two years highlighting prize-winning recipes. Now in its 19th edition, the Iowa State Fair published its first cookbook in 1983. An "Iowa State Fair People's Choice Best New Food Fair Food" is chosen annually. Williamson says that last year the fair sold 50,000 of the winning food, an apple egg roll.

Here's a look at some of the foods visitors can try this year:

Bacon Wrapped Pig Wings

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $4

Description: A whole lot of pork on a stick — that's four ounces of pork wrapped up in a blanket of bacon and then deep fried, of course. It comes with a side of BBQ or sweet chili sauce to sweeten the taste.

Chicken Street Tacos

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $9

Description: Inside these soft-shell tortillas are grilled chicken, fresh corn salsa and a squirt of tangy lime. Topped with a drizzle of sweet pepper sour cream, the tacos deserve some serious street-food cred. These are a 2019 Best New Food Finalist.

Chuckie's Pork Strip Basket

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $10

Description: Also known as cheesy pork fries, waffle fries are mixed with three pork strips that have been breaded and seasoned, topped with a cheese sauce, bacon bits and chives. Sriracha sauce is available for spice-lovers.

Cookies and Cream Wonder Bar

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $4

Description: Cookies and cream ice cream is coated in chocolate then rolled in crushed Oreo pieces to make that next fair ride a tad sweeter. At just $4, this is 2019's Best New Deal Winner.

Funnel Fries

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $5

Description: Funnel cake and fries — really, just an easier way to eat two American staples at the same time. Dipping sauces and powdered sugar included.

Georgie's Roast with the Most Wrap

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $10

Description: Inside this cheddar tortilla wrap is beef pot roast, white rice with Chorizo sausage, roasted green chilies, cheddar Jack cheese, candy corn salsa, crispy corn tortilla crumbles and a sour cream drizzle. In case you need another ingredient, salsa verde sauce comes on the side and gluten-free wraps are offered for those less daring. This is a 2019 Best New Food Finalist.

Jalapeno Popper Pizza

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $5

Description: With sweet chili sauce, apricot preserves, mozzarella, cheddar, cream cheese, bacon and jalapenos, this pizza is not your average street slice.

Lemon Peppermint Sipper

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $3

Description: A refreshing break from the day, lemon with a soft peppermint stick to eat.

Pete's Steak Popper

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $6

Description: A pepper that will keep you stuffed, this jalapeno pepper has smoked brisket and cheddar cheese inside, with steak wrapped around it, because #Fairfood.

The Chief

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $8

Description: This sandwich for the ages is filled with slow-smoked beef brisket, topped with cilantro lime slaw and salsa cream. This is a 2019 Best New Food Finalist.

The Colossus

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $25

Description: The name says it all — this is colossal. Underneath the six strips of bacon and 10 ounces of mac-n-cheese are three hamburger patties, three Italian sausage patties, three slices of American cheese and three slices of pepper jack cheese. The Muffuletta bun measures 10 inches, and for the higher cost of $25, we can only hope this one will keep you full.

X-Treme Balls

Photo courtesy of the Iowa State Fair

Price: $4

Description: Fried pork tenderloin balls on a stick, with pickles, onion, deep-fried breading, ketchup, mustard and hot sauce.

Even if the concessions are the main draw, there's plenty to do at the state fair that doesn't involve chewing.

The fair features roller coasters, livestock and art shows, and live entertainment — Sonny and Cher, the Beach Boys and Johnny Cash have all performed at previous fairs. There are also activities like goat yoga and cow milking, as well as hundreds of competitions and contests awarding prizes for raising the best zucchinis and making the best jam.

Perhaps the most famous of the Iowa State Fair's many attractions is a giant sculpture of a cow made completely of butter. A staple of the fair since 1854, the sculpture requires an amount of butter that could be spread across 19,200 slices of toast, and must be housed in a showcase that's kept at 40 degrees. The iconic Butter Cow sculpture is 5.5 feet tall and 8 feet long takes 16 hours to create.

This year's Iowa State Fair runs through August 18th.

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