Hot, Melty, Sticky

August 12, 2016


August 2013 Iowa State Fair! 004

It was August—Iowa State Fair time in Iowa. Butter was on sale at Hy-Vee, so I was buying 12 pounds to freeze for Christmas baking. The boy at the checkout counter seemed amazed by the quantity of butter I was unloading from the cart. Suddenly a knowing look crossed his face. “Ohhh, you’re the one who carves the butter cow at the state fair, aren’t you?” I stared down at the stacks of butter, which now seemed to be quite a measly quantity if I were truly sculpting an entire cow. I replied that I did not sculpt butter cows, but I did mold some butter hearts for a luncheon one time. He was instantly bored with me and the conversation was over. Back home, as I piled the butter into the freezer, I decided that I probably did have enough butter to carve several decent-sized goldfish … if perchance the Iowa State Fair ever wanted to do a “butter koi” display.

Recently, I wondered how hard it would be to sculpt an animal from butter. I went to the fridge and grabbed a stick. “Hmmm, this would have to be an animal that’s long and low to the ground, like a dachshund or a weasel.” But, I knew that FullSizeRender(68)my subject should be a farm animal, so I decided on a pig. I am sending kudos to Sarah Pratt of West Des Moines, the current state fair butter cow sculptor. It’s hard to do! It’s really more butter molding than sculpting. I could only work on it for a short time before the butter would get too soft, and then I would have to shove it back in the fridge and do something useful for awhile. (Obviously, I have no life.) After a few hours, I finished my object d’ art. This is Willard the Pig (a salute to my home town’s pig statue that greets everyone entering Villisca’s city limits on Highway 71). Willard recently donned biking shorts to greet the RAGBRAI riders as they swarmed through the town.

Villisca’s Willard the Pig (named after weatherman Willard Scott) wore bike shorts, helmet, and shades to greet this year’s RAGBRAI riders. (Photo courtesy of Villisca native and resident Susie Enarson.)

Where to begin? We all know that the Iowa State Fair is a festival for all of us, with contests, exhibits, concession stands, midway rides, the Sky Glider (for a 360-degree view of the grounds), talent show, demonstrations of various products and equipment, camping, grandstand shows, people-watching, and on and on!

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Obviously, I can only scratch the surface, so here is your midway ride through my brain as I share my impressions of the Iowa State Fair and plant some ideas for a  celebratory Iowa-State-Fair-themed party in your own back yard. Hang on tight! I only hope when we get to the end of this odyssey, you haven’t woofed up your corn dogs.


My friend Judy Quick, who is a true fair fanatic, has taken many photos over the years. She kindly supplied me with some wonderful ones from her files to help inject the proper state-fair state of mind here at The Messy Cook blog. They will be interspersed throughout this post.

When I was in grade school, I was invited to go camping at the fair for a couple of days with my friend and her family. I had camped once (in a little trailer) with my aunt and uncle and cousins. I wasn’t exactly a camping fan, but the lure of seeing the state fair for the first time made it easy to say yes. Here are the two main things I remember: 1) I hardly slept; 2) I didn’t shower. The August 2013 Iowa State Fair! 277showers were in a large building on the campgrounds, so rather than risk showering with a spider or a wet chipmunk or maybe even a weasel, I decided I would just smear deodorant all over my body. I was tan from swimming, so I’m sure the white streaks looked like a bad case of dry skin. I am reminded of a quote I recently saw  on Facebook, “Camping—where you spend a small fortune to live like a homeless person.” Seriously, sleeping with only a thin layer of material between you and the ground is … ummm … character-building. This family loved horses, so a lot of our time was spent at the horse barns/arena area. I wanted to spend more time at the midway, or the concession stands, or seeing some baby pigs, but I was the guest, not the travel director. (And yes, I do think horses are cool; I just have never known any personally.)

August 2013 Iowa State Fair! 126Many years later, Bob and I took the kids to the fair. They were dazzled by all the food stands serving every treat imaginable. So, right out of the gate, we had to stop and fuel up on snacks. Next, we rode the Sky Glider, and it was then that Brad and Kelly noticed there was a midway below us. Several rides later, we steered them back to petting baby animals, watching a border collie round up sheep, and seeing the winning cakes on display. But they fussed about going back to the midway. “Just a few more rides and then no more!” we said. Then we were off to see the butter cow. They liked it, but they really wanted some more snacks. After one more trip to the concession stand, we  announced, “No more junk!” As we headed off to the Varied Industries Building, they had a meltdown … and so did we. That was our day (a mere few hours) at the fair. It still remains a fond memory for us all. Seriously!

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Oh yes, those concession stands reminded me of another story. Years ago, Bob and I took Bradley, 8, and Kelly, 4, to Busch Gardens in Tampa. After being flung and twirled by the “wild” African-themed rides, we continued on through the Dark Continent. It was then that I noticed a sign in the distance that said, “Snake Pit”. “Hey kids, I said, “Look! There’s a Snake Pit over there! Shall we go see it? Brad shouted, “YES!” Kelly stopped dead still and refused to move another inch. “I DO NOT want to see snakes,” she announced. After much fussing, she agreed to go, but her arms were in a vice-grip around Bob’s neck. As we got closer, she was whimpering in fear. I happened to glance at the sign again. What?? Oops! “Oh kids, I read it wrong! This is a Snack Pit, not a Snake Pit!” Bradley was crestfallen, and Kelly began to cry, “You said we were going to see the snakes! Where are the snakes? I want to see the snakes!”

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Each year I am fascinated by what new foods have been skewered to be sold to hoards of hungry fairgoers. Here are some of the new introductions for 2016 that I would like to try: Cheddar Bacon Cheese on a Stick, Fried Fruit Kabobs, Apple Fritter Bite, and the highlight for me would be the Loaded Taters on a Stick! The all-time most decadent “stick” treat  has to be last year’s Deep-Fried Butter on a Stick. It’s no longer available. (I could make a joke here, but … no.)


I cannot attend the fair this year, but if I could go, here would be the must-sees/must-do’s for me: chicken washing and blow-drying demonstration; the Iowa grocery-bagging contest; fiddle/mandolin contest; Mr. Legs contest; ice carving demonstration; piglet racing; Great American Spam Championship (not); grape stomp; old-fashioned hymn sing; butter sculpting contest (yes!); the Gantry Show (a self-contained 22-foot tall gymnasium structure, powered by pedaling, which features acrobats and contortionists); and the new Discovery Garden Pathway. And even though I’ve never participated, I love the fair’s legendary food-judging contests, where ordinary (and extraordinary) Iowa cooks have the opportunity to present their prepared recipes for judging. This state has produced a lot of blue-ribbon winners!

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Maybe you can’t make it to the fair this year either, or even if you can, here are some ideas for celebrating our iconic Iowa State Fair with your own party!

Of course, “Hot, Melty, Sticky” is how everyone feels after spending a humid August day at the fair, but it’s also a great theme for a state fair party. After your friends have agreed to attend, tell them their admission ticket is to bring a butter sculpture that they have made themselves. It should be carved, molded and/or sculpted from a stick or a block of butter. You should have sheets of paper for each guest to write down what they think each sculpture is. (It might not always be easy to tell.) Awards for best, worst, most obscene, etc., should be presented. (How about giving out Butterfingers for prizes?)

FullSizeRender(70)Another messy but hilarious activity is the egg-smashing-on-the-head game (similar to the one that Jimmy Fallon often plays with celebrities on his show). A dozen eggs in an egg carton are presented to two willing players—six are boiled; six are not. The first person chooses an egg and smashes it on his head. If it is boiled, the person gets a point. If it is raw, he gets no points. Then, the other person selects an egg and does the same. This continues until the person who gets five points first, wins. It’s a hoot!


FullSizeRender(64)In keeping with the “Hot, Melty, Sticky” theme, we’re going to need plenty of “fair” food. We’ll talk about “Melty” first, and that means butter! We want it fresh! So, everyone will make their own, and get in a little workout while they’re at it! Here’s how to do it. Use a small jar with a rubber-gasket-sealed lid. I bought these cute Anchor Hocking jars at the Hy-Vee Food Store. You can also get them at You’ll also need two (freshly washed) dice per jar to drop inside to help with the churning action. Fill the jars half-full with heavy (whipping) cream and a heaping 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt. Allow the cream to come to room temperature—45 minutes or so. Then the action begins when you tell everyone to start shaking their jars. (People can take turns so you don’t have to provide so many jars of cream.) After about 10 minutes, voilá! The cream has IMG_1935turned to butter! The thin buttermilk surrounding the butter can be drained off. With a spoon, the butter can be removed from the jar and slightly squeezed to remove the dice and the remaining liquid. The butter can be placed in small bowls with spreader knives. Then everyone can enjoy it on crisp crackers. You may also want to have small bowls of herbs, garlic, pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, etc., for seasonings. Just plain is wonderful too. (This would be a good activity to wear down your children and grandchildren so they’ll sleep well later.)

Homemade Butter


While playing mah jongg this past week, I interrupted our game to see if my friends would be willing to shake up some fresh butter for me (for a photo for this post), and did they ever do a fine job! While Nancy Armstrong, Teresa Choi, and Denise Dornbier shook for 10 minutes, I relaxed in a chair and drank champagne. The Messy Cook is a sly fox, eh? Here is a short little video of these movers and shakers.


2016-07-10 18.05.22Now we move on to the “Hot” part of the party theme. Anyone who has been to the state fair has probably chowed down on those hot and peppery Grinder sausage sandwiches, also known as “Gizmos”. My friend and excellent salon stylist for many years, Andrea Baker is also a great cook and creative person. She figured out how to make a very authentic-tasting gizmo slider several years ago, which rivals any sold at the state fair. And no state fair party would be right without serving these delicious hot and spicy sliders! The recipe makes lots, so it’s a great one for a large group.

Hot Gizmo Sliders

Hot Gizmo Sliders

  • Servings: Lots
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 3 pounds Graziano’s ground sausage
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 24 ounces or more Classico Tomato Basil spaghetti sauce (buy 2 jars to be safe)
  • 1/2 cup Old London Italian Seasoned bread crumbs
  • Rotella Italian rolls or mini-cocktail buns
  • Sliced mozzarella/provolone cheese
  • And Andrea’s secret ingredient—half the juice from a 12-ounce jar of mild banana pepper rings. (Andrea likes Vlasic.) Save the pepper rings for sandwich topping or add to meat.

Before cooking, mix the sausage and ground beef together. Put meat mixture in a dutch oven. Cook over medium heat, chopping continuously to get a fine mix. Drain. (May transfer to crockpot at this point, if desired.) Add the spaghetti sauce and pepper juice. Simmer on low to blend the flavors. When the meats are tender and flavors are blended, add bread crumbs to thicken the mixture. This helps the meat stick together. Add more sauce, juice, and bread crumbs to suit individual taste. Fill rolls with meat, cheese, and peppers. Wrap sandwiches with foil and place in 250-degree oven to warm and melt cheese. For parties, Andrea uses the crockpot. She sets out a tray of mini-cocktail rolls, thin slices of cheese, and peppers for guests to assemble their own sliders.

Recipe from


FullSizeRender(58)IMG_7481And how can we throw a party without having a  blue-ribbon-winning recipe for guests to enjoy? Several years ago, Ginny and Mark Haviland were asked to submit a recipe to the “Cookie’s Bar-B-Q Contest” at the Iowa State Fair. So, they submitted a baked bean recipe that they loved, which was based on one they had seen on an early-morning TV cooking show. And, they won the blue ribbon! Mark says, “The recipe could feed most fairgoers for a day, so you may want to cut the size down to whatever works for you. Enjoy!” (Ginny and Mark are a great team, no matter what project they decide to undertake!)

Blue Ribbon Baked Beans

Ginny and Mark Haviland at the Iowa State Fair several years ago, with their daughter and grandchildren, after they won the Blue Ribbon for their baked beans.

Blue Ribbon Baked Beans

  • Servings: Lots
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

This recipe serves a large group, so cut down the ingredient portions if necessary.

  • 2 (55-ounce) cans Bush’s Baked Beans, drained
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 cup California white raisins
  • 1 cup Cookie’s Bar-B-Q Sauce
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 or 3 red or green apples, chopped (not too small)

Mix all ingredients together. Bake for 1 1/2 hours or longer at 350 degrees in a large (10×15-inch) Pyrex pan. Best to let stand for 20 to 30 minutes before serving. Recipe size can be decreased or increased as needed.

Recipe from


Then we come to the “Sticky” part of the theme, which represents the most well-known type of food served at the Iowa State Fair. Here are three different food-on-a stick ideas for your party menu. You probably even have your own ideas of favorite dishes that could be converted to “on-a-stick”.


My friend Susan Furtwangler is an outstanding cook and is especially known for her Asian-cooking expertise. This appetizer was a hit when she served it to the gourmet group a few years ago.

Seared Tuna Skewers with Wasabi Mayonnaise


Seared Tuna Skewers with Wasabi Mayonnaise

  • Servings: 28
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 2 tablespoons wasabi powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (Hellman’s is good)
  • 1 pound fresh tuna steak, at least 3/4-inch thick
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 28 large slices pickled ginger
  • 28 6-inch wooden skewers
  • Black sesame seeds
  • 1 bunch watercress (Tracy didn’t use this, but it looks pretty when you do.)
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Mix wasabi powder and water in small bowl to blend. Whisk in mayonnaise, cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. (Can be made one day ahead. Keep refrigerated.) Combine tuna steak and soy sauce in medium bowl or Ziploc bag, toss to coat. Marinate tuna for 30 minutes at room temperature; rotate occasionally. Meanwhile, thread 1 ginger slice onto each skewer, 2 inches from tip. Line a platter with watercress. Place bowl of wasabi mayonnaise on platter. Drain tuna steak; pat dry. Sprinkle with pepper on both sides. Dip one side of tuna steak in black sesame seeds. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add tuna steak and sear until browned on a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add tuna steak and sear until browned on both sides but still pink inside, about 1 minute per side. Cool to room temperature and, if serving later in day, refrigerate. Cut tuna in 3/4-inch cubes. Thread cubes onto prepared skewers next to ginger slice with “sesame seed side” out. Arrange skewers on platter and serve.

Recipe from


One of the great summertime treats in the Des Moines metro area is when the Fabian Seafood truck arrives from Galveston, Texas. Several times during their seafood season, Fabian sets up shop on the corner of 28th and Grand Avenue, not far from the governor’s mansion. This has been the routine for this company for at least 35 years. The seafood (gulf shrimp, red snapper, blue crabmeat, fresh shucked oysters, etc.) is caught in the Gulf, iced down, and driven straight to Des Moines in a refrigerated truck; it’s never seen a freezer. Many local fans have their names on Fabian’s email list in order to receive advance notice of the truck’s arrival—always on a Wednesday, but not every Wednesday. You can be on the list too if you sign up at This is a recipe I created the first time we bought the shrimp. I usually don’t put the shrimp on a stick, but it’s a requirement for a state fair party!

Cajun Barbecued Shrimp


Cajun Barbecued Shrimp

  • Servings: 7 or 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons barbecue sauce (I used Masterpiece Original)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 pound raw* shrimp, shelled and deveined, tails left on (frozen (thawed) uncooked shrimp may also be used)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the first 8 ingredients and set aside. Peel, devein, and rinse the shrimp. Add cleaned shrimp to a Ziploc bag, add marinade, and close. Move the shrimp and marinade around at least a couple of times while they marinate. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.When ready to cook, remove shrimp from bag, shake off excess liquid, and discard marinade. Grill 5 to 7 minutes, or until they turn opaque and pink. To oven roast: Place marinated shrimp in one layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes, or until they turn opaque and pink. Do not overcook. After they cool a few minutes, they can be threaded onto skewers, if desired. Grind more fresh pepper over all. (*Note: Don’t even think about using already-cooked shrimp for this recipe; it’s not an option. If you do, they will be as rubbery as an old bicycle tire. Then you’ll hear my screechy little voice somewhere in your brain saying, “I told you so!”)

Recipe from


I enjoyed some amazing Chicken Satay at an excellent restaurant a few years ago. It was garlic-infused and so tender. I tried to duplicate it in my kitchen, and I think I have come pretty close, even though it may not include all of the usual satay ingredients. I have tried grilling the strips of chicken with and without skewers. Personally, I enjoy them more when they aren’t threaded onto a stick (even though that is how they are customarily served). And since we are all in a state-fair state of mind, we want the convenience and schtick of food on a stick. So, go ahead and serve it lollipop-style, but for me, I prefer to “satay away” from the skewers.

Chicken Satay with Peanut Dipping Sauce


Chicken Satay with Peanut Dipping Sauce

  • Servings: 4 to 6
  • Difficulty: Easy to Medium
  • Print

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts*
  • Basil in chiffonade, for garnish

In a bowl, whisk together all ingredients, except that last two. Slice each chicken breast lengthwise into approximate 1-inch slices. Put into a large Ziploc bag and pour in the marinade. Knead bag with fingers to mix well. Put in refrigerator for 4 hours or more. Knead a few times during marinating process. Grill chicken pieces about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes on each side. If it’s not grilling weather, use a grill pan (or griddle) on stove. May thread chicken onto skewers after cooking, if desired. Sprinkle on basil. Serve with Peanut Dipping Sauce. (I prefer mine without sauce.) (*I always use the Smart Chicken brand.)

Peanut Dipping Sauce

  • 1/2 cup fresh peanut butter (in the refrigerated section of grocery store)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground ginger root
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  •  1 clove garlic, minced

Stir all ingredients together in a small serving bowl. If it seems too thick, add more water until it is of a “dipping” consistency.

Recipe from



By now, you’re dipping into your reserve tank for energy, so you need something easy for dessert. There’s no shame in serving good chocolate truffles or cake balls. (Cake balls from Caché in West Des Moines,, are among the best I’ve ever tasted, especially the almond ones!) Just put them on sticks and arrange them in a vase with a bow, and you’re done! The chocolate truffles I used for this picture are Godiva brand. Lamb sugar cookies with “wool” made of creamy butter frosting would be the perfect dessert for a state fair party, but alas, I am spent, and I’m sure you are too!

Lamb sugar cookies are fun to make, but that’s a project for another day.

Last Bites

August 2013 Iowa State Fair! 094

The Iowa State Fair is consistently ranked in the top three state fairs in the nation. From August 11 to 21, more than a million visitors will pass through the gates. Situated on 445 acres on the east side of Des Moines, there is truly something for everyone! (Thank you again to Judy Quick for the well-chosen fair photos. Wish I could have used them all!)

By the way, do not get into any heated political arguments during your “Hot, Melty, Sticky” party. Those food sticks are sharp! You’re obviously not an Olympic-level fencer (or else you would be in Rio right now), but try to be en garde when you are near these things. Being punctured by one might not kill you, but it could leave some seriously deep dimples. You have been warned. (I wonder if the state fair EMTs have to rescue a lot of food-stick-impaled people.)

Thanks for dropping by. I will be back with a new post on August 26. Don’t you forget now!—Tracy











12 thoughts on “Hot, Melty, Sticky

  1. Tracy–I have so enjoyed reading your blog. Not only yummy recipes but you are so talented–made me smile every time. Would love to receive your cookie recipes–my Mom is Dutch and she baked all the time. So must say we love our sweets.




  3. I imagine a lot of people read this that never comment. And it’s so easy to do. But this is the vacation time of year, so I imagine they are either at the Iowa State Fair or on a trip. I hope they are reading this. Something for everyone. . .fun, food, and history! But I do love to read the comments.


  4. As always such an enjoyable read! It was nice reading about the Iowa State Fair — brought back memories. Once such memory is riding this immensley large ferris wheel and being stuck on the very top. Yikes!!! I don’t ride ferris wheels anymore!! Love your blogs!!!


  5. Absolutely amazing! I NOW think I was adopted. Does all the talent go to the first child? You are a “Renaissance Woman.” (YOU and Linda Artlip) (I have GREAT respect for anyone who writes and keeps deadlines – still!) From Butter Cow to Grand Recipes to back yard Fair Party – I am in awe! I have the ingredients for the Hot Gizmo Sliders and the Blue Ribbon Baked Beans – so guess what we are having this weekend! I can put Fred’s Class Reunion diet on hold for ONE MORE WEEKEND. And BTW, Happy Anniversary to you and Bob! Lucky Bob gets to try all of these recipes!!


    1. Thanks for all the great comments! I’m trying to remember if you and Fred ever went to the fair? I’m guessing that probably Fred has, being a farm boy, but you may not have. And, obviously, I haven’t been there much myself.


  6. Since I LOVE the State Fair (almost as much as our friend Judy Quick) I also particularly loved today’s edition of The Messy Cook Blog! And…I may try the “egg game” for cousins’ camp,. We were going to do the “egg toss” but perhaps the “egg-smashing-on-head” would be even more fun! Thanks for starting my Friday morning with smiles!


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