Savoring Iowa’s culinary history — Iowa author presents at Marshalltown Public Library Saturday

T-R PHOTO BY DORIE TAMMEN — Author Darcy Dougherty Maulsby gave a presentation based on her top-selling book, “A Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites and More,” at the Marshalltown Public Library on Saturday afternoon.

Ask Iowans about Iowa’s favorite foods, both traditional and new, and you will get a variety of common answers: breaded pork tenderloins, sweet corn, macaroni and cheese, jello salads, taco pizza, walking tacos, breakfast pizza, and Marshalltown’s own Maid-Rites, among others.

The Marshalltown Public Library hosted a fun and interesting program, “Savor Iowa’s Culinary History” on Saturday. It was sponsored by Humanities Iowa and the State Historical Society of Iowa. The presenter was Iowa native Darcy Dougherty Maulsby, based upon her top-selling book, “A Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites and More.”

It’s said that elegant, fine dining in Iowa got its start at a mansion built in 1869 by Des Moines’ first millionaire, B. F. Allen: Terrace Hill, now the governor’s mansion.

Often, favorite dishes in Iowa are based upon the ethnic foods that pioneers brought with them when they settled our state. In areas where many Czech immigrants settled, such as Cedar Rapids and Spillville, kolaches are popular. They are a pastry filled with fruit, cheese, etc. Interestingly, Spillville cooks and Cedar Rapids cooks disagree on one detail: Spillville kolaches are folded, with the filling inside, while Cedar Rapids kolaches have the filling on top.

German immigrants settled in the seven villages of the Amana Colonies. Originally a communal society, individual homes did not include kitchens. Meals were eaten in 60 communal kitchens located throughout the villages. And of course, foods that were familiar to these early German settlers were cooked and served in them. Around 1900, it was not unusual for the communal kitchens to produce 400 gallons of sauerkraut in a single season, according to Maulsby’s book. The communal kitchens closed in the 1930s, but as of 2016, one of them has been restored as a museum.

Scandinavian immigrants brought their favorite foods with them, too: baked goods such as lefse and kringla, and lutefisk, which is made from dried and reconstituted cod, is still served at a few church suppers in Iowa. It is said to have a “distinctive” flavor and is considered an acquired taste for many.

Dutch immigrants continue to make their heritage known today in places like Pella, with traditional Dutch bakeries. Italian immigrants settled primarily on the south side of Des Moines, and the Graziano Brothers store has been around for over 100 years and is still operated by a third generation of the family.

Archie’s Waeside (yes, that’s the correct spelling) in Le Mars was founded by a Russian immigrant in 1949. It has won a James Beard Award, and has been named “one of the 10 Best Damn Steakhouses in America.” Mason City’s “Northwestern Steakhouse,” which was founded by Greek immigrants and features a Greek influence in its menu, is also highly regarded.

Many early Iowa communities had local breweries. Prohibition was passed in Iowa in 1916, but it did not keep brewers from brewing. Sioux City was far enough away from Des Moines and the State House that they disregarded the law and continued producing beer with little interference, and serving it up in dozens of local saloons.

There are many more interesting examples of the connection between Iowa, a major food producer, and food in general. Iowa-born Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, got a bit of a bad name because of the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. He deserves great credit, though, for having founded the European Relief Council, which saved thousands of lives feeding starving Europeans where supply lines were cut off during WWII.

Sterzings was an early candy-making business in Burlington. The company founder decided it was difficult to make candies in Iowa’s extreme summer heat and humidity. He needed an alternative. Therefore, we have Sterzing’s Potato Chips, beloved by many for decades and still in stores today.

Jell-O has been an Iowa staple for over 100 years. Iowa cooks are known for making “Jell-O salads” (for example, Strawberry Pretzel Jell-O Salad) that some insist cannot be salads because “salads aren’t sweet.” But did you know that the company once made celery, seasoned tomato, and mixed-vegetable flavored Jell-O? All three were made with artificial flavoring, which may be the reason they’re no longer made. In 1999, Des Moines surpassed Salt Lake City for the highest Jell-O consumption, making it the Jell-O capital of the United States.

Finally, the supposed Iowa match-up of chili and cinnamon rolls was familiar to some in the audience at the library, but not all. Is it “an Iowa thing” or not? It seems that’s up for dispute.


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