Posted by: trevormeers | August 3, 2011

Day 5: Cranksgiving Feast

Dispatches from a week-long bicycle trek across Iowa.

RAGBRAI drove me to eat like a man convinced his big break in life will come as a contestant on The Biggest Loser. A man handed a magazine expense account and an assignment to eat his way across the Heartland. As fun as it sounds to get orders to eat a la carte carte blanche while burning somewhere around 5,000 calories a day, it’s not the festivus an amateur eater would imagine. Pounding down two consecutive church dinners then saddling up to pedal 30 miles in 95-degree heat isn’t for the faint of gut. But I have stared the following culinary characters in the eye and lived to tell the tale.

Ham Balls – I was ignorant of this particular farm-country delicacy until I started researching the food of RAGBRAI, but on Iowa’s back roads, it turns out that ham balls are as common as, well, ham farms. Ham balls are essentially spherical versions of meatloaf made with pork products. They run to the sweet side and have a squishy consistency that is guaranteed to make my wife turn up her nose simply by reading this sentence. My first ham ball experience came on an all-you-can-eat buffet line in an Atlantic restaurant. All I could eat was one–until later in the week; see below.

Aebleskivers – Another spherical take on a traditionally horizontal food, aebleskivers are a Danish popover/pancake hybrid cooked in a seven-chambered pan over a flame. For some reason, the only aebleskiver cooks in the town of Elkhart were men, who stood in a long line under a tent, spinning the doughy balls in the cast-iron pans using little picks that looked like the things dental hygenists use to torture your gums. I don’t know if aebleskiver-cooking is a male-only pursuit, or whether the local women were all busy making Danish crepes and posing as mermaids. I do know that mockery ensues if you act like you’ve never seen an aebleskiver pan before. One cook turning dough balls snarled to his colleague, “I took one of these on a plane once and the security guard thought it was an egg-poaching pan.” Then they both snorted at the idea of such a provincial yokel.

Smoothies – My salvation throughout the week, smoothies provide not only a nutritious snack that helps you rehydrate and reenergize, but they feel insanely good when held against the veins coursing through your forehead with blood superheated by the act of pedaling to the town with the smoothie stand. My favorite was Solar Smoothies, which powered its blenders and cooler with, wait for it, a solar panel. The smoothie bum from Santa Fe I talked to said they were selling 1,000 smoothies a day at $5 each. I am pretty sure “Mad Money” ranks smoothie stand futures as a “buy” every year in mid-July.

Armadillo Eggs – No one in Brooklyn, Iowa, would divulge what these were in advance, even if you announced you were a journalist looking for unusual foods to feature in a major magazine. So I clicked up to the Armadillo Egg stand in my biking shoes with no clue, just like the rest of the horde. When the lid went up on the steam tray, I learned this creation consists of a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and cooked on a smoker. There is nothing not to like in that sentence. Unfortunately, the creators chose to use a spiceless form of sausage and a smoker apparently stoked with the very rare Blandwood. But the canned cheese sauce on the side was a nice touch.

Ham Ball Sundae – As a kid, I was the guy you could get to slide down the barn roof in my Toughskins just by announcing you thought I was too scared to try. So naturally, I had to have a go at the Ham Ball Sundae in Oxford.  This little stunt of a snack starts with a layer of cheesy hashbrowns in a styrofoam bowl, smothered in a ladle of baked beans, capped with a ham ball and kissed with a cherry tomato on top. Ignoring the gastrointestinal consequences over the coming week, I knocked one back and pedaled 17 hilly miles to Coralville. The spork was a nice touch.

Maid-Rite – This loose-meat sandwich was recently named a Midwest food everyone should try before they die by a certain notable Midwest magazine. Said magazine received some hate mail questioning the sanity of editors who would put such a bland mess on such a distinguished list. With this raging controversy in mind, and feeling somewhat guilty after 10 years in Iowa without eating Iowa’s native fast-food sandwich, I purposed to try a Maid-Rite in its hometown of Wilton. Critics say the Maid-Rite is a pile of tasteless hamburger on white bread. The critics should not be ignored. In a post earlier this week, I questioned whether I had reached the tipping point of being more Iowan than Nebraskan, triggering an e-mail intervention from at least one concerned Nebraskan. To settle those fears, I will go on record as saying that I know Runzas, and you, Maid-Rite, are no Runza.

Beekman’s Ice Cream – There’s no witty comment or strange element about this one: outstanding peach ice cream served within earshot of a bluegrass band set up next to a grain bin. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share a photo of the Beekman’s mobile production line in honor of my brother, who has spent countless hours in my parents’ gravel driveway, bent at the waist, staring into a discount-store ice cream churn for hours on end in the desperate hope that the struggling electric motor will yield homemade ice cream before a hyper dog knocks the whole thing over. Beekman’s powers its churns with a set of antique steam engines, whose steady chugging signals relief to steaming riders from a half-mile away. If I can get a deal on one, I’ll buy it for my brother so he can actually see summer ice cream finished before Thanksgiving arrives.

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Responses

  1. You had me gagging @ “ham ball”.

  2. Runza > Maid-Rite
    Ham Ball Sundae = A failure pile in a sadness bowl

  3. Armadillo Eggs – we call those Scotch Eggs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotch_egg)

    And *waves* from Australia – I found your blog via Charlie Sherpa of Red Bull Rising blog

    Pax
    Downunder

    • Pax: Thanks for the tip on Scotch Eggs. Nothing new under the Iowa sun, apparently. And thanks for bringing an Aussie flavor to SW of Mingo!

  4. Midwest girl that I am, you have presented foods I’ve not heard of. And the Ham Ball Sundae looks like a very clever marketing ploy…a casserole dressed up like a dessert. Does “wife” not like meatballs of any kind???

    • The wife is not a fan of any foods consisting of blobs of meat. You don’t see a lot of meatloaf in our house.

  5. So you’re saying I shouldn’t take the ole Ice Cream freezer to RABGRAI next year to make some extra spending money?…Hmmm, maybe I’ll just dress up in a Mermaid outfit…On that mental image…

  6. Thanks for trying our Maid-Rite! It was a great day and we loved having so many people try our Maid-Rites for the first time. I’ve got one clarification…the Maid-Rite originated in Muscatine, Iowa. We set up shop in Wilton that day to accommodate all the RAGBRAI riders! Stop in again soon!


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