This weekend, a few friends and I took an unforgettable road trip to visit our dear friend Colleen in Des Moines, Iowa. Yes, Iowa. Despite my initial resistance (what’s less daunting: a $550 plane ticket or a 10 hour drive?), I eventually succumbed as soon as talk of the Iowa State Fair began. Not to mention the fact that Colleen has no qualms in constantly reminding me that she came to visit me in France, so skipping out on Iowa was simply out of the question.  The girl has a point.

Who needs to travel internationally when you can take a big bite out of America with just a (not so) quick car ride away? We talked up the fair for weeks, planning all that we were going to see, do, and most importantly, EAT! The Iowa State Fair has an entire landing page on its website dedicated to food on a stick. Our group of friends can be found at any given time eating, planning what we are going to eat next, or talking about something we wish we were eating at that moment, so we definitely were up to the challenge. Fairs, festivals, and carnivals of any kind are generally known for their unhealthy fare, but the Iowa State Fair takes unnatural cuisine to an entirely new level. Case in point: fried butter. This is not a joke. Fair-goers (my friends and I included) indulged in a stick of butter dipped in a honey batter and fried to a golden brown. When in Rome, right? We also treated ourselves to fried cheese curds, fried candy bars, and most notably, a red velvet funnel cake with cream cheese glaze. To say we all need to hit the gym this week is an understatement, though I don’t regret a thing! It’s all about life experiences.

In addition to the hundreds of food vendors, the fair boasts rides, carnival games (one of our friends lost $60 trying to win a Michigan State pleather jacket. Karma for supporting Michigan State, I suppose), craft beer tents, musical performances, pageants, and a petting zoo, among a multitude of other attractions. One of the events that has garnered the most popularity over the years in Iowa is the butter sculpting competition. The Iowa State fair is most known for its famous Butter Cow, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2011! As described on the Iowa State Fair website, the tradition started years before the fair even began as a means of worship for Tibetan monks who carved animals from yak butter. The cow sculpting held a special meaning this year, as the first female sculptor and only the 4th sculptor in the history of the fair passed away in June. Norma “Duffy” Lyon began sculpting the cow in 1960 was succeeded after her death by her apprentice of 15 years, Sarah Pratt. The butter cow is made of wood, metal, wire, steel, mesh, and butter, and it weighs approximately 600 lbs upon completion. Photos can be seen all around Des Moines in preparation for the fair and it is clear that it is a source of pride for the city.

Despite a few minor setbacks (mainly the one where I arrived in Iowa and realized my purse, including ID, cash, and credit cards was still in Michigan), the trip was well worth the travel time. Though maybe not as “exotic” as traveling somewhere where I would need to speak a foreign language, Iowa definitely has a story to tell. The heart burn from the fried food will eventually subside, but the memories of the good times shared with my friends in a brand new city will last a life time! Until next time, Des Moines – sorry I ever doubted you!

What is your favorite “hidden gem” in the United States? Have you ever stumbled upon a cultural event by accident, only to be pleasantly surprised?

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