I grew up in the agriculturally rich, heartland of the country, in Southeast Iowa. My whole family is from the East Coast but my parents moved to Fairfield, Iowa and both my brother and I were born there.
When I tell people where I grew up, their eyes glaze over uninterested and say, “Oh where in Idaho?”
“Um, actually it’s Iowa.”
I agree, there isn’t a lot there and right in the middle of the country it’s relatively flat, quiet, rural and filled with fields of crops. You often pass towns where the population reads under 1,000 – you know, where if you blink, you might miss it.
But there is something incredibly serene and beautiful about Iowa. The rich green scenery and rolling hills provide a simplistic beauty to its coupled silence. You can see sunsets for miles – there’s a 360 degree view everywhere you turn. Silos, red barns, swaying corn and soybeans silhouette against the sky dotted with puffy clouds. On those good days, it’s robin’s egg blue sky that stretches for miles
Photo via, Des Moines Photo Blog; Ankeny, Iowa Sunset
Did you know Wright County in Iowa has the highest percentage of grade-A topsoil in the nation? It’s no wonder it’s called “Iowa gold”. Living in a pretty dry state (Colorado), Iowa is the only state whose east and west borders are 100% formed by water which are the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. And about 15 minutes from the house I grew up in, the infamous American Gothic was painted and you can still visit that house today (and pose in front of it). I might add, Iowa was the third state in the US to legalize same-sex marriage.
Photo via, Iowa Corn
But I digress.
The New York Times recently covered eating in Iowa, their article titled, “Eating in Iowa – Fresh, Fried and Frugal.” I love how it encompasses what you’re likely to find throughout Iowa’s culinary scene (and they also stop through Fairfield, my hometown).
Author, Seth Kugel perfectly summarized, “During the rest of my sprint around the state I would continue to Ping-Pong between fatty gluttony and farm freshness.”
On my last visit home this Summer, I had two very Iowan food experiences and I couldn’t help but share. Join me in this culinary story and journey through my home state.
Planting Fruit Trees and Hard Cider at King Edward’s Orchard:
One of my best friend Hopi’s boyfriend, Clint, has an orchard just outside of Fairfield called King Edward’s Orchard. Covering eight acres, the orchard pays homage to Clint’s dear friend and his friend/co-owner of the orchard’s father, Ed, who has since passed away. Clint has taken to carrying on his legacy by planting fruit trees and keeping the orchard maintained.
As we walk through the orchard down a slope toward the thick of trees that line the property, he rattles off name of friends, couples, and families who have come out to plant “their” trees.
Clint graciously supplies the tree and only asks you to bring two solar lights – so at night, the orchard is aglow. The deal is that you plant the tree and get your hands deep in the soil and dirt of the land, shoveling, sweating, watering and preparing your tree, before the set of photos Clint always takes with everyone to commemorate the moment. I brought my mom, Hopi, and her mom to join in on the experience.
I also love the community aspect of the orchard and what Clint is building. As humans, we desire connectedness. We all like to find connection or common ground with one another. I like to think of the orchard as a tiny piece of that.
In addition to the peaceful orchard, Clint and some of his friends are brewing their own hard cider and created their own restaurant and business, The Cider House in town. We tasted some in the hot evening, as the sun was setting on this August evening.
At the beginning of their plight, we tried their “sour Asian” traditional English style hard cider. It was incredible. Brewed right in his basement with our friend Cole, I couldn’t believe how refreshing it was. It’s light, and devoid of that “too sweet” taste cider sometimes has. I can’t wait to watch them bottle these up!
Note: My friend Donna has a lovely article on Clint and King Edward’s Orchard in the Iowa Source. You can read it here.
Fried Chicken at Mt. Hamill Tap:
After visiting the orchard, tree planting and tasting homemade hard cider – we hopped in a friend’s van and prepared to make the trek to Mt. Hamill Tap in Donnelson, Iowa.
Mt. Hamill Tap is an institution.
Opened originally as a bar in the 1940’s after Prohibition, it has made its way through many owners over the years. In the early 1960’s, Paul and Irene Schulte started their infamous Mt. Hamill chicken (that they’re still known for today). Thereafter, it was sold to their nephew, Jerry and Mary Lou Sanders and they have been carrying out their legacy ever since. Their claim to fame is that they’ve served over 300 million quarters of chicken for almost 50 years!
You drive through small, two lane dirt roads and cornfields and out of nowhere you arrive at the tap. There is no sign but there are cars parked everywhere – lined along the side and in ditches, to catch their weekend fried chicken.
As you can see from the map, there’s nothing in sight or nearby. Typical Iowa – throwing down with this greasy hole in the wall where people travel near and far to enjoy.
Although we went for dinner, I still can’t get over how cheap Iowa is. They have a daily lunch special for $6 and they only serve dinner Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (read: that’s the fried chicken).
Pitchers of cheap beer land on our table as I survey my surroundings. When you enter, there’s a long bar on the left stocked with your typical beers like Miller and Coors. The rest of the room is lined with tables and red plastic tablecloths, a pool table in the corner and a back room with large family-style seating (16 per table). There’s 1970’s style wood paneling lining the restaurant walls and an old linoleum floor.
The servers don’t mess around, as they’ve dealt with their fair share of farm boy shenanigans, long lines and plate after plate of fried chicken. You can expect to see a lot of mullets, cowboy hats and cut-offs, but you always see a variety of patrons, young and old, filing in, which shows their loyalty to regulars and adoration no matter who you are. This place is always packed and notoriously, has lines out the door.
You can order white or dark meat chicken and you can order 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 or a whole chicken, fried. I went with the 1/4 (still a diesel portion) and the all you can eat salad bar ($4.50; or with dinner $1.25) complete with romaine lettuce, ranch, croutons, some pickled items and shredded cheese. The good stuff. We also ordered cream corn nuggets (battered and fried) as an appetizer ($3.25).
Your food comes out on a white, plastic plate. The hunk of chicken is glistening from the grease and a baked potato with a package of sour cream is on its side. My favorite part perhaps was the “butter” sandwich (probably margarine), made with wonder bread.
As you dig into the chicken, your fingers moving nimbly as it’s piping hot on your hands, the meat is tender and the breading is crunchy and salty. You wipe your mouth with the back of your hand, the other hand holding the chicken because you don’t want to stop eating.
Everything we ate was hearty, bang for your buck for the price, and downright good. You’re not going for the “quality” of the ingredients, you’re going for the experience, consistency and history.
It’s probably the kind of place Guy Fieri would feature on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives – emphasis on the dive.
When you cruise through some of the Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews (otherwise, their online presence is pretty minimal – this is for the good ol’ boys, no one needs the internet) they’re all wildly enthusiastic such as:
“There is not even a close second. The chicken is from another planet! When I lived in Burlington, Iowa I learned about the incredible chicken in Mount Hamill. MANY years later and now living in the Kansas City area, I still frequent “The Mount” as often as possible. I gladly drive the 300 miles, spend Friday and Saturday nights in Burlington, and hit “The Mount” back to back nights. It is my favorite place to eat on earth.”
“The chicken is great… have been coming to eat here for years and will continue to do so. you can’t get a better piece of chicken!”
“Never a bad meal here…been going to this place for over 30 years. Best fried chicken anywhere! Always busy on the weekends, and worth the trip! I always take friends/relatives from NYC here…they love it!”