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An Insider’s Guide for Savoring Iowa’s Hidden History

Pop quiz—where in Iowa you can dine at a James Beard award-winning steakhouse? Any idea where to find Iowa’s own distinctive style of potato chips, which might be the world’s best chips? What if you want to step back in time and enjoy a slice of homemade pie at an Iowa icon that first opened in 1852?

You’ll pass the test with flying colors—and impress your friends—when you discover Iowa’s hidden history. Okay, it’s not really hidden, if you know where to look. If you have an appetite for adventure, you can’t do better than Iowa when it comes to history, culture, and one-of-kind culinary experiences. And yes, contrary to popular belief, Iowa does have distinctive food traditions, as revealed in my new book, “A Culinary History of Iowa: Sweet Corn, Pork Tenderloins, Maid-Rites and More.”

(In case you’re wondering, the steakhouse is Archie’s Waeside in LeMars—see page 56; the chips are Sterzing’s from Burlington—page 144 has the scoop; and the 1852 restaurant is Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown near the Mississippi River, page 92).

Relish the tantalizing tidbits you missed in history class.
This hunger for all things Iowa started decades ago. For nearly 20 years, I’ve been a “Roads Scholar,” with my work as a freelance ag writer and marketing specialist taking me across Iowa’s back roads year-round. As a lifelong history buff and food aficionado, I’ve made it a point to visit every mom-and-pop café, museum, and food festival I encounter in my travels.

I also love sharing what’s great about Iowa and often post stories, photos, and recipes form my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and my blog. I’m old-school, though, and still love printed books. After working with Arcadia Publishing in 2015 on my first book, Calhoun County, which tells the story of small-town and rural Iowa through the eyes of those who lived it, I was hooked.

I was thrilled when The History Press offered me a contract the day before Thanksgiving 2015 to write “A Culinary History of Iowa” I freaked out, though, when my editor wanted a draft of this 190-page book by late February 2016. Had I bitten off more than I could chew?

From Al Capone to Jell-O
Never one to back down from a challenge, I channeled my inner “Roads Scholar” again and headed across Iowa. First stop? The historic Hotel Julien Dubuque, where I dined on incredible Banana Bread French Toast at Caroline’s Restaurant (named in honor of one of Iowa’s first female entrepreneurs) and heard tales of infamous gangster Al Capone and his ties to the hotel. (Want the whole story—and maybe stay in the luxurious Capone Suite? Check out page 120.) res

All this whet my appetite for more. Iowa’s delectable cuisine is quintessentially Midwestern, grounded in its rich farming heritage and spiced with diverse ethnic influences. Then there so many tantalizing Iowa originals, like the world-famous Iowa State Fair, where a dizzying array of food on a stick commands a nationwide cult following. You can’t forget Maid-Rites, the moveable feast known as RAGBRAI, Steak de Burgo, strawberry-rhubarb pie from the Amana Colonies and other Iowa classics.

And then there’s Iowans’ mystifying love affair with Jell-O. (See page 45 for the surprising story.) Want to spark a heated debate? Ask an Iowan to decide whether Strawberry Pretzel Squares with Jell-O on page 46 is a salad or a dessert.

Pretzel Jello dessert (2)
Feel like raising a few eyebrows? Ask Iowans (and non-Iowans) what they think about serving chili with cinnamon rolls. As a friend fromMinnesota told me (with an air of disgust), “Chili and cinnamon rolls—together? That makes about as much sense as birthday cake and scrambled eggs!” Only to the uninitiated, my friend.

Chili cinnamon roll low res
Don’t miss the world’s best cinnamon roll recipe (which can also be adapted to make the world’s best caramel rolls) on page 154. I can vouch for the awesomeness of Mom’s Favorite Cinnamon Rolls from my friend Jerry Schleisman, who farms near Lake City. Jerry’s mom, Loraine, was a school cook when I was growing up, and I still remember how fabulous her homemade caramel rolls were. I promise you—no one skipped school lunch when it was chili and caramel roll day!

I invite you to dig in Iowa’s tastiest traditions through “A Culinary History of Iowa” and make time to explore my home state, from our small towns to the cities. You’ll relish the tantalizing tidbits you missed in history class!

Our Iowa Maulsby1.Nov.2015-001Darcy Dougherty Maulsby grew up on a Century Farm near Lake City, Iowa, and still lives in this area, where she runs a marketing/communications company and is working on her next book. Learn more at, where you can visit her online store to order “A Culinary History of Iowa” and “Calhoun County.” Darcy’s books are also available on

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The Top 10 Iowa Oddities: Unique Attractions Across the Hawkeye State

When I first relocated to central Iowa from Chicago, I was worried there wouldn’t be a lot of things to do among the cornfields of America’s heartland. But over the years, Iowa has proven not only to be a great place to live but also a state full of offbeat attractions.

So to honor the weirdest and wackiest the Hawkeye state has to offer, I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 Iowa oddities. Next time you’re planning a trip, be sure to add one of these popular places to your itinerary!

Albert the Bull

Albert the Bull

Located in Audubon, Iowa, Albert the Bull is a 45-ton Hereford with heart. Built in the 1960s as a way to honor the area’s cattle raising history, Albert the Bull has become an area icon over the years. Towering 30 feet above the cornfields, this Iowa attraction has had his fair share of publicity—not only does he appear in the movie Beethoven’s 3rd but he also was an answer on “Jeopardy” and even got a mention in “The West Wing.”

American Gothic House

American Gothic House

Even if you aren’t an art enthusiast, chances you’ve heard of the artist Grant Wood. Next time you visit Iowa, you can do one better and visit the site where he painted one of his most iconic works: American Gothic. While it’s previously served as a home to artists, caretakers, and even a pie baker, today the American Gothic House is tenantless. However, the home is still occasionally open for visitors to explore along with the interactive learning center located adjacent to the site.

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

“Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.” And there’s nothing more Iowan than the Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner may be long gone, but you can still visit the iconic ballfield plopped down in the midst of the eastern Iowa cornfields. Be sure to bring your own ball, bat and gloves since the site is fairly minimal, and be ready to soak up some of the field’s famed magic.

Future Birthplace of Captain Kirk

Future Birthplace of Captain Kirk

Calling all Trekkies: Did you know that in the year 2228 Captain James T. Kirk will be born in the small town of Riverside, Iowa? While we wait for his arrival, you can visit his future hometown and even attend their annual Trek Fest in late June. Be sure to pop into the Voyage Home Museum for a look at Captain Kirk memorabilia from over the years.

Grotto of the Redemption

Grotto of the Redemption

Built using an estimated $4.3 million of stones and precious gems, the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa is a jewel like no other. Construction on the grotto began in 1912 and lasted for more than 40 years in the small northwest Iowa community. Today more than 100,000 people visit the world’s largest man-made grotto annually and marvel at the intricate work done by the priests of West Bend’s St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church.

Maasdam Wheel Art

Maasdam Wheel Art

Towering 60 feet over Iowa cornfields, Leonard J. Maasdam’s wheel art was constructed using more than 200 steel wagon wheels. Located just south of I-80 near Lynnville, Iowa, this piece of art is not only beautiful but also impressive—the artist completed the piece when he was 90 years old.

Matchstick Marvels

Matchstick Marvels

Home to master craftsman Patrick Acton, Gladbrook, Iowa has a unique claim to fame: it’s the home of Matchstick Marvels, a collection of large-scale models made entirely from matchsticks. Acton has been creating the models since 1977 and has created everything from the U.S. Capitol to the Iowa governor’s mansion Terrace Hill. Still not convinced? This year’s addition is a two-headed dragon that not only lights up and roars but also flaps its wings.

Snake Alley

Snake Alley

You’ve probably heard of San Francisco’s famed Lombard Street, but did you know that an alley with a more precarious pitch exists in Iowa? Once recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the Crookedest Street in the World, Snake Alley is a must-see stop if you’re traveling through Burlington, Iowa. Cars are still allowed (weather permitting) on the winding road so thrill-seeking tourists can chance a trip down the steep hill.

Volkswagen Beetle Spider

Volkswagon Beetle Spider

Sometimes the best type of roadside attraction is one that simply allows you to get out of the car, stretch your legs, and snap a few photos. And southwest Iowa’s Volkswagen Beetle Spider let’s you do just that. Located just south of I-80 near Avoca, Iowa, this vintage Volkswagen Beetle turned eight-legged attraction is a quirky, quick stop if you’re just passing through.

World’s Largest Popcorn Ball

World's Largest Popcorn Ball

Located in northwest Iowa, Sac City is a town with a passion for popcorn. So much so that the community has built not one, but four World’s Largest Popcorn Balls over the past 20 years. Most recently, Sac City residents completed an almost 10,000-pound behemoth earlier this month that they hope will be sticky enough to hold the record for World’s Largest Popcorn Ball.

Top 10 IA Oddities Pinterest Graphic

What are a few favorite offbeat oddities in your state?

Megan Bannister is a freelance writer and digital media strategist based in Des Moines, Iowa. When she’s not admiring local art or in search of a stellar iced latte, you can find her writing about road trips, adventures, and world’s largest things on Olio in Iowa and Wandering the World’s Largest.

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A Typical Day in Clear Lake? Never!

Clear Lake sunset


Clear Lake sunset

By Jenny Doughty

As the water slowly laps around my feet, I feel the warmth of the sun above and hear the welcoming cries of the sea gulls. Overhead, wispy cotton candy clouds drift lazily in a brilliant blue sky.  I reflect on the day ahead and wonder what excitement awaits. Gazing down Main Street an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and boutiques await my exploration each offering something unique – delectable tastes, fabulous gifts, clothing, collectibles and more. The park beside me in the heart of town will soon awaken with the laughter of children as they climb to the top of the slide and swoosh down its length while a family sits nearby sharing a picnic lunch. A couple sits in quiet conversation on a nearby bench sharing smiles and meaningful looks. Tonight, as the sun goes down offering a brilliant back-drop to the band shell, music will fill the air while people gather to enjoy.

You Knew Me When

Behind me Clear Lake reminds me of all it has to offer with its great expanse and shimmering beauty. Folks begin gathering on the docks, fishing lines cast in hopes of catching “the big one”. Others launch their boats for deeper waters or the fun and excitement of tubing, skiing or sailing. Nearby, the Lady of the Lake excursion boat begins to hum, the spray of water glistening like diamonds as her paddlewheel turns while music and laughter fill the air. Someone walks their dog on the brick path winding along the waterfront while folks begin laying out their towels for the day’s swim and basking on the beach. Fun, food and relaxation seem to be the order of the day.


Strolling past downtown I wander towards the Central Gardens its beauty revealed in a rainbow of color, scents and textures beckoning I stroll along its path. Stopping by the local brewery I share a flavorful flight of hand-picked brews and my stomach reminds me it’s been ignored far too long. What will I enjoy today – steak, deli sandwiches, Italian fare, fish, BBQ, Mexican, broasted chicken, pizza, farm-to-fork creations or??? The options seem endless!


Looking at the week ahead I marvel at all this community has to offer for no day is typical in this idyllic town! With all that it offers, my family and I can create an experience that’s as varied as each family member. We can explore, create, play, celebrate, laugh and enjoy; captured by the beauty and rhythm that is Clear Lake.

Connect with Jenny
Blog: My Thought’s Imaginings
Twitter: @LootByLouise

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Food, Family, Friends & Good Times – Great Food Places in Clear Lake, Iowa

By Featured Blogger Mary Lovstad of Farm Girl Cookn’

One of my favorite Irish proverbs is “Laughter is brightest in the place where the food is.” We bond around food, whether it is around the family dinner table, a campfire, a potluck, an elegant restaurant or the local truck stop. Food brings us together; it not only nourishes the body, but the soul.

Part of planning a trip for me is finding those local spots that not only have great food, but give me the essence of the place that I am visiting. Clear Lake, Iowa is a charming, lake town that has just those kinds of places that can create warm memories and lots of laughs.

Lunch’n with the Ladies
Taking time to connect with your girlfriends or maybe a nice lunch with your daughter home from college is a special treat. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Starboard Market – A darling, little deli with scrumptious selections – really wonderful soups, sandwiches that you can build as you like or try their signature combinations, pasta and fruit salads and decedent desserts. This is the perfect place to sit with your bestie, laugh and savor the flavors. Come early or after the rush if you want a seat and time to chat!
  • Cabin Coffee – A local coffee shop, turned local chain, that not only has excellent coffee, but a nice assortment of breakfast and lunch options. I really appreciate the warm cabin appeal and sipping a light raspberry latte by the fire with my posse.
  • The Lady Bug Cafe – A grand place to gather, giggle and eat the daily special. Not only is it a café, but a greenhouse, bakery, wellness center and spa. The fork to table experience and sitting outside in the screened in rooms on a sunny day really is hard to beat.
  • Sevens by Rookies – On a cold winter day, a pub lunch experience, maybe fish and chips, or a sweet chili chicken wrap is just the ticket. Its inviting atmosphere fosters great conversation.
Fish and chips 7s (1)
Fish & chips at Rookie’s

Family Night Out
Finding something that everyone in the family agrees on can be a challenge and maybe even more so when you are away from home. Camping food is fun, but sometimes you just need someone else to do the work! Unlike my mom, who used to go into a restaurant and ask them to say they only had orange pop and hamburgers before she took our crew in – today’s families are used to choices. Here are a few that I’m sure will please:

Date Night
I don’t think there is anything more romantic than dinner with my handsome husband by the lake. My two favorite places in the summer are The Landing – On the Lake and The Tiki Bar. Both have great food and an enchanted summer setting. Sunset on the lake, a glass of wine with someone you love – magic! Winter visitors will find these nice choices for an evening out:

Favorites of the Locals

  • For dinner, I like the Anchor Inn.  They have a great menu and I do like the atmosphere.
  • The Landing in the summer, mostly because of the outdoor, lakeside deck atmosphere, as well as PM Park.
  • For lunch right now, I do like Seven’s many different types of sandwiches & Back yard Deli.
  • One of my favorites is Starboard Market.  Fun names for their signature sandwiches, great variety of salads, and scrumptious desserts (with zero calories, I’m sure).
  • My daughter and her friends like Shao Ting Guo.  She loves the egg-drop soup.
  • Cabin Coffee because it serves yummy coffee, great sandwiches, and soup.  I really love the atmosphere at Cabin Coffee.  Especially the area back by the fireplace.
  • I like Cancun for my Mexican fix. It’s not too expense and I always get full.  Free chips and salsa is always a bonus.
  • Azzolina’s Hole in Wall – Grinder on Garlic Bread….YUM!!

So whatever reason you find yourself in Clear Lake, I hope you find that the “Laughter is brightest in the place where the food is.” For links to the restaurants and their menus,visit the Clear Lake Convention & Visitor’s Bureau here.
Visit Mary’s blog: Connect with her on Twitter: @farmgirlcookn