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We dive into the world of state, county and agricultural fairs with Marla Calico to learn about their history, impact and why roast beef sundaes are all the rage at fairgrounds across the country. Plus, we head to the Iowa State Fair to meet the woman who carves cows out of butter and the kids striving to create the world’s ugliest cake. We also get a crash course in wine from sommelier André Mack and we make Eggplant and Tahini Dip.
Questions in this episode:
"Tell me what you know about hand-beaten cakes."
"I'm looking for a bigger version of my boning knife for chopping vegetables. What do you recommend?"
"I keep seeing recipes for cooking carmelized onions over medium or high heat, but every time I do that I burn them. What am I doing wrong?"
Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX I'm your host Christopher Kimball. At a state fair 1000s of people might show up with cakes and cookies, sheep, even stalks of corn to compete for blue ribbons. But at this year's Iowa State Fair, one prize was especially sought after.
Iowa State Fair: I think this one is really gross, do you? Very good at decorating? Yes, the decorating is kind of pretty. The idea is disgusting.
CK: Those were two judges conferring at the ugliest cake competition. Later in the show, we'll explore the history and culture of agricultural fairs across the world and bring you to opening day of the Iowa State Fair to see the sights, try the food and meet their world-famous butter cow. But first sommelier and winemaker Andre Mack joins us to demystify wine. Andre is the host of Bon Appetit’s World of Wine series on YouTube. Andre, welcome to Milk Street.
Andre Mack: Thank you. Thank you.
CK: Let's start with my favorite topic. Wine tastings.
AM: Okay, I love wine tastings.
CK: There is some controversy here, right? I mean, even experts can guess wrong between cheap and expensive wines. For example, I think there was that famous tasting where white wine was dyed red, and the tasters never even realized that. (Yup) So doesn't that undermine trust in wine experts and wine tastings?
AM: Well, I mean, I guess for me, I think, first and foremost, what I preach to everyone is that you're an expert in your own taste. You know what I mean, I think with wine and some of these things, we tend to give our power away too easily. And so, I think for a lot of people, you know, they try to align their palate with a critic.
CK: I guess my underlying question is, is wine almost entirely subjective? Or is there an objective basis, clear demarcations that almost anyone can tell between a well-crafted balanced wine and one that's not? In other words, we could argue about whether you like tannins or not, or you like oak, but underneath all of that, what is it that is actually objective?
AM: Well, I mean, I think like oak is present in a wine and do tasting wine and tasting with others that are better at tasting wine, you could distinguish oakiness in a wine like so I, I do think that, that it is subjective to a point just like art is but there are art critics and people out there who, who can say, Oh, look at this brushstroke and the way that they painted in the way that they did that. So, I do think that there is discernible difference in wine. And I think you can learn how to tell the difference between those items and taste the wine of quality.
CK: So, the problem with the two of us is, you know, way too much, and I know way too little. Okay, so let's meet in the middle here. So, (okay) you know, I just go insane when I read wine tastings, which I try not to do and they go into all the leather and the fruit and everything else. I'm going like, life's too short, I, you know, I'm checking out here, but just go to the top level for me. And so, you're telling me look, Chris, here are the four or five things you really need to focus on when you first smell or sniff the the wine?
AM: Well, I mean, for me, it's like the first thing does it taste good? Right? Is it served at the right temperature? And, and that's it.
CK: Well, that's simple enough, I like that does does good mean that no matter what kind of wine it is, there's some sort of balance is balance really the core definition of a good one or not?
AM: Yes or no, right. Right. Looks like (of course) good means is is does it taste good to you? Right? That's really what we're saying on the subjective part. I think for me, a well-made one will have a start and a finish will have some degree of acidity to it. And balance is what you're looking for. If it's overly fruity, then it's not balanced. If it's too acidic, it's not balanced. It's too alcoholic is not balanced. Right. And so, when you have all of those parts that are in harmony, and and one doesn't outshine the other one, then we'd like to consider that wine be balanced.
CK: Okay, temperature. I've been told by good friend of mine in the business. He says red wine or white wine should both be served around 55 degrees. The red wine should not be room temperature, which I think you agree with. And the white wine should not be served, you know, at 40 degrees out of the fridge. Do you agree with that?
AM: Your friend was right. And I think in this at least in this country, that it's an epidemic. You know, a lot of restaurants you go to you know the white wines are served way too cold, which basically numbs the wine you can be drinking anything. The reason why you pay more money for you know that more so or that white burgundy is for the nuances, and when the wine is served to cold. those nuances are masked, and you don't get to experience them. Red wines way too warm. I can see some reds being served at 55 like mine probably closer to 60 -65 But you're As you know, when the winds are too warm, all you can taste is the you know, the alcohol and you're robbed of, of what you really pay for in the bottle of wine.
CK: Okay, so let's imagine, it's kind of hard for me to imagine this but imagine I have a half a bottle of wine leftover at the end of the night. So, what do I do with it?
AM: Half a bottle of wine leftover, you put the cork in it and put it in the refrigerator, no matter if it's white, or red. And that's it. And then if it's red, I pull it out of the refrigerator 20 minutes before I want to drink it, to let it come to temperature and then drink it.
CK: I thought you were going to say you pull it out 20 minutes later and finish the bottle, that would be a good answer. Let's talk about labels and names. (Okay) I think you have a label that's Love Drunk.
AM: Love Drunk. Yes
CK: And OPP Other People's Pinot (Yes) So you're obviously not a classicist, what do you think about names?
AM: Yeah, I've always felt, you know, naming a wine after myself just felt pompous. You know what I mean? Andre Mack, you know, it's like, Who the hell is that guy, or Mack estates? Like I understand the tradition. But for me, it felt like naming a wine after something that invokes some type of emotion to me felt smarter, you know, naming a wine like Love Drunk, or Other People's Pinot, you know, something that people can interpret it or mean something to them, to me felt like a better way to name my wines.
CK: I don't know, Andre Mack is a pretty good name.
AM: I mean, I think for me, it was just more like having fun with wine. Like, I think that you walk by and you see a wine label and it says Love Drunk. I think it helps people let their guard down. It feels like a little bit more inviting. And that's that's all I wanted. You know. And just to have a sense of humor. I think you didn't really see that in wine at all. You know, I thought I had a pretty great sense of humor. And when I ended up going to work at the French Laundry, what I found out is that the menu was very playful, and that the chef had a sense of humor. And I realized that if it could work there, then it could work on wine bottles.
CK: Speaking of the French Laundry, I just have to ask what was it like to work there? And what were you doing before you got that fabulous job?
AM: A copy of Wine Enthusiast magazine showed up at the restaurant I was working at. I was the sommelier there but they couldn't afford to pay me so I was a sommelier and a waiter there and a copy of the magazine came in and I was flipping through it. And they had a section in it called Kitchen Confidential. And it had four different sommeliers listed in the in the magazine, they were talking about the wine programs. And there was this guy in Texas. A guy named Paul Robertson, he worked at a place called Cafe Annie. And I was so inspired by the article that I picked up the phone and I called every single one of them and asked if I could come in and work for free with them. And it was basically like show up at the backdoor at Cafe Annie at 4:30 on Thursday. And so, we're in the car, my girlfriend is dropping me off. And you know that I got coffee. I was like, man, this is so stupid. This is dumb. Like, I don't want to do this. And then he's just like, well, you're already here. You should go. So I go in. And that was it. I started talking to Paul and this was on a Thursday, Paul was telling me that earlier that week on Monday, he accepted the job to be the beverage director for all of Thomas Keller’s, properties. And so, I worked the restaurant floor with him serving wine. And then at the end of the night, he's like, kid, I like you. I’ve got to hire six sommeliers for all the different properties. Do you want to come work at the French Laundry?
CK: You had to really think about that one
AM: I was like hell yeah. And. And that was it.
CK: Andre it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for being on Milk Street.
AM: Thank you so much. I enjoyed being a guest. Thank you, Chris.
CK: That was sommelier and wine maker Andre Mack host of the Bon Appetit YouTube series. World of Wine. He owns several restaurants and shops including And Sons ham bar and Mockingbird Taco. My co-host Sara Moulton and I are ready to take your calls. Sara is of course the author of Home Cooking One on One and star of Sara's weeknight Meals on public television.
Sara Moulton: So, Chris, you travel a lot, both for work and also with the family. Is there anything really exciting you've eaten recently?
CK: Well, my wife has relatives in Salzburg in Austria. So, we we just got back actually spent a few years. Austria is really an interesting place. It's not a place a lot of people go, but the food's amazing. A lot of the wines. Rieslings, Veldt liners are not exported. Some of the great wines are there, but everything is local. It's very low key, like a potato salad with carrots and greens and other things like the weisswurst, the white sausages, the pretzels with this mustard, dark breads, wonderful breads. So, it's simple, but it's really good. One of the best things you can do is go to the lakes outside of Salzburg, like Wolfgang Ze, and they have a restaurant right at the shoreline and you eat fish from the lake. (Wow) potatoes, and a nice glass of wine or two of wine. And it's just lovely. You know, so it's I shouldn't be saying this. Everyone's going to go to Austria not. Not great.
SM: You're ruining it.
CK: Anyway. Love Austria. Yes, great food. So, let's take a call.
SM: Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?
Caller: This is Gail Beckindorf.
SM: Hi, Gail. Where are you calling from?
Caller: Orlando, Florida.
SM: How can we help you today?
Caller: Well, at one of my son's weddings, my cousin mentioned to me about the wedding cake. She said, that tastes like a hand beaten cake. And I said, Oh, my goodness, you're right. And all of a sudden, I begin to remember all of the hand eaten cakes that I have eaten as a child. And I know it must be a technique that's passed down, then I would love to know anything you can tell me about that.
SM: Tell me what you mean by hand beaten?
Caller: Okay You don't use an electric mixer. Everything is done by hand. (Okay) everything. In course, I believe this case, what I remember were more dense. But they were delicious. And I loved them.
SM: Well, they were certainly made with love, because that was a lot more work. In terms of them being denser. That makes 100% sense too. A lot of cakes depend on the way you beat them to get their volume, meaning to be light and airy. The modern-day cakes using mixers tend to be lighter. But anyway, let's see what Chris has to say on this subject. Oh
CK: Oh boy. If you look back at the history of cakes, I mean, all cakes, were yeasted cakes right before we had artificial leaveners around 1820 or 30. So the history if you look at British baking, they have and still have yeasted desserts. And those probably worked out well because yeast would make things nice and light. The next type of cake before you got to the standard yellow cake was a sponge cake. And if you look back to the 1800s, everyone was like Martha Washington cake etc. they were sponge cakes usually filled with a jam or something with confectioners’ sugar on top, like Boston cream pies and sponge cake. So those are whipped egg whites. And those are you can do by hand.
SM: Actually, in the case of egg whites, you probably do a better job doing it by hand.
CK: And so that worked out well. And those were very light. I think when you get to the American style layer cake. Those tend to coincide with, you know, eggbeaters or other things. I do remember though, when I was starting out this business, back in the 1700s,
SM: before the Earth’s crust cooled.
CK: There was a cake batter mixing tool that would look like a large ladle with holes in it. And so, they actually did mix batters that way using that tool, but I think the modern cake American cake really is consistent with mechanical ways of mixing.
Caller: The first commercial mixers were manufactured in 1850. And then there was a company I think their name was American Rufus Eastman and they produced the home mixers in 1885. We're going to start making some of those cakes and see how it goes
CK: I have these fantasies about the way I like to cook in the future. If I ever had the time, it would be a very simple kitchen without any electric appliances. I just find that charming, so good for you.
Caller: Yes. I've always collected hand tools at yard sales. Yeah, I'll start working on it. And every dish has a story and you're telling some great stories on that show. It's fabulous. Thank you so much.
SM: Thank you Gail
CK: Thank you. I really appreciate the call. Thank
Caller: Thank you. Nice to meet both of you. Goodbye.
SM: Okay Gail Goodbye.
CK: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Yeah, hi this is Martin from Palo Alto.
CK: How are you?
Caller: I'm doing great.
CK: So how can we help you?
Caller: I'm doing the thing where recipe calls for cutting onions fine. And I'm reaching for my boning knife more and more. I find it cuts vegetables and it's become kind of my favorite knife. I'm looking for a bigger one. (Right) I've got lots of knives. I've got stainless steel, German ones and French carbon steel ones and they're all great, but
CK: Well, I totally agree with you. Here's what you need. The thin blades will cut through an onion for example better than a thick blade because you're pushing less metal through the food so you're absolutely correct. There is a Japanese knife called Nakiri N-A-K-I-R-I it's a vegetable knife. It is very thin. It's like half the thickness of a typical European chef's knife. It has a blade that's about two inches deep and they come in different lengths. But Nakiri is exactly the knife you need to cut vegetables, onions, etc. and the Japanese brilliantly have a whole bunch of different designs that are made for different purposes, unlike sort of the one size fits all in the European kitchen, other than a paring knife or bread knife. So, buy yourself a good, Nakiri. And that'll just change your life in the kitchen because it'll be so much easier to do your prep.
SM: You know, I was wondering if maybe part of the problem is that your boning knife is really sharp compared to the rest of your knives.
Caller: I’m pretty good at keeping my knives sharp in general. I've rehoned them all to 15 degrees.
SM: Oh, excellent.
Caller: I give them a decent sharpening maybe once every month or two.
CK: Wow. By the way, here's a statistic I was speaking with ankles this week, actually Henckels did a survey 87% of the home cooks surveyed said they've never sharpened one of their kitchen knives. So, you are you are in the top 1% of 1%. So, you're way ahead of the pack here, pal. That's really good for you,
SM: Chris and I argue about this all the time, because I like a big knife. But I'm coming around to the Japanese because they're made out of a harder metal. And they they're sharpened to a sharper edge. So, they can cut more neatly the only thing they're not great for meaning the finer knives, the thinner knives are like cutting up a chicken, you know or
CK: Well, a Chinese cleaver is the other thing you can buy. They only cost 20 or 30 bucks, some of them and I actually do fine work with that because it's a thinner blade. This isn't like a meat cleaver. These are finer. And you can slice garlic. I actually do onions with it. I love using it. So anyway, a Nakiri, Chinese cleaver.
Caller: What do I do with all my leftover knives?
SM: Donate them to a cooking school
CK: Yeah, there you go. I mean, you don't really need more than four or five knives. Actually, I have a bunch of knives and I only use three or four of them. But I like having them. It's like having shoes you never wear sort of like it's nice that they're there.
SM: Oh, really Chris?
CK: Yeah. So no, I just like having them. You know,
SM: Or like having bow ties you never put on
CK: Hundreds. Yes, that's true. Anyway, Martin, thank you. Sounds like you know what you're doing, so
SM: Yes, I'm impressed.
Caller: Well, thank you very much.
CK: Take care.
Caller: Bye. Bye.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you have a culinary mystery, or just a question, give us a call anytime. 855-426-9843 that's 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com.
Welcome to milk street who's calling?
Caller: This is Priscilla from Archer, Florida.
CK: How can we help you?
Caller: Oh, well, I wanted to talk about caramelized onions. (Okay) I have several recipes that involve caramelized onions. And they're all slightly different. But they all want me to cook the onions over medium or even medium high heat for at least 30 minutes. And I find that I cannot do that. If I follow the recipes as written, I end up with cinders. I can make caramelized onions by using medium low heat for maybe 20 minutes, (right) So I just wonder what's wrong with me?
CK: Nothing wrong with you. It's just the place you got the recipe. First of all, the first thing I've learned in the last few years is you don't have to heat the oil before you add the onions. That's nonsense. So, I put room temperature oil in the Dutch oven, make sure you have a heavy bottom skillet or Dutch oven, throw in the mess of onions with the oil, that's fine. Add the salt at the beginning. I put it on medium, just to get things going. And as soon as you start hearing any noise in the pan, turn it down and I cook onions very low, especially if you want to caramelize them is definitely low heat, stirring them occasionally. But anyone who says medium or medium high, that's just wrong. Because you'll end up as you said with burnt onions. It's not your fault. It was just the recipe.
Caller: But I have so many of them.
CK: It doesn't matter that everybody can be wrong. Come on.
CK: It's true. The other thing about recipes you should realize you probably do is that once something is stated in a recipe, even if it's wrong, it gets repeated. So, there are plenty of examples of this. Yeah, things just get repeated. Going back to the 19th century, you'll see something dumb in a recipe and the just for the next 100 years. It's repeated. So just because a lot of people say it doesn't mean it's true. You're absolutely right.
Caller: Well, that’s good to know. I asked my friends what I was doing wrong, and they shrugged and said you have to call Milk Street
CK: Well, the answer is you're right. They're wrong.
Caller: Well, thank you.
Caller: Yeah, Sara, do you have
SM: No, I agree. The thing that makes us cry when we cut onions is the very same things, the sulfur compounds in it that make it when you cook it low and slow make it gets such depth of flavor and have such wonderful sweetness. And you don't develop that adequately either by doing it on a high temperature if you've ever taken onions and just throwing them on a really hot grill and grill them, so they charge at the edges. They don't have that depth of flavor. It tastes like crunchy onions with charred bits. You have to cook them low and slow. If they do stick, just add a little water so that they can keep cooking until you get that color.
CK: One last thing we'll let you go is someone taught me this few years ago. Just listen, because the onions he'll tell you if they're cooking too fast. Right? If they're angry, it's true. It's too much heat. So, you want a nice gentle sound.
Caller: That's great. Thank you
CK: There you go.
Caller: I appreciate it.
CK: Take care.
Caller: Thank you. Bye bye.
CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next. What does it take to win the blue ribbon for ugliest cake? We'll find out after the break. This is Milk Street Radio I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's our deep dive into the world of state and county fairs. One of the country's biggest and best known of course is the Iowa State Fair. Milk Street took a visit to opening day of the fair for the food but also for the competition. Over in the livestock barn we met competitors like Keely Curley, who was grooming her eight-month-old market lamb Jimmy.
Fair participant: I like sheep because I don't know I feel like you can't connect to them on like an emotional level. I would say that he can definitely have an attitude at times. But don't we all.
CK: We also stopped by some of the culinary competitions including one that invited contestants to do their worst not their best. Milk Street producer Sarah Clapp takes us to room four of the Elwood Family Food Center to hear more.
Sarah Clapp: If you want to win one of the Iowa State Fair’s most popular baking contests, you need to get creative with your ingredients.
Fair participants: So, we use Rice Krispie’s, lots of food coloring. Tootsie Rolls, a whole bunch of different kinds of candy, leftover fish bones and like skin that I ate from a dinner.
SC: Unlike other fair competitions. Disgusting is a good thing here. Welcome to the Ugliest Cake competition where kids ages seven through 17 are given free rein to concoct something truly gross, just as long as all their decorations are edible. The tables in this exhibit room are covered with cakes in the shape of moldy sandwiches, dissected frogs, which get people to react like this.
Fair goer: I'm like, oh, gross. That's like whoa, whoa, I just don't want to look at it anymore.
SC: According to the state fair rulebook these cakes must be quote, “ugly as can be but not obnoxious”. As spectators roam the room contestant Vivian Wicks wonders whether any of the cakes crossed that line. Her verdict?
Fair goer: Yum, yeah, some of them like my friend Caitlin's,
SC: Which Caitlin describes as “my foot after 11 days at the fair with a bunch of blisters and stuff”.
This isn't the only foot in this year's batch, and certainly not the only body part. 16-year-old Taylor Weese mean an anatomically correct heart nestled in the scene from a hospital. She even engineered the heart so it beats most people don't want to eat their creation, but Taylor would,
Taylor Weese: Especially the heart I had like the very strong intrusive thoughts to just take a huge bite of the heart. But I'm like, I can't do it. I can't do it.
SC: For the participants making ugly cakes is an exercise in creativity. But the adults who run the contest they're delighted too. Take judge Amy Doerring
Amy Doerring: Crunch bar I think that looks like crunch. Oh, caramel that made the diarrhea. Yuck.
SC: This contest is actually named after Amy officially is called the Bret and Amy Doerring Ugliest Cake competition. She and her husband have sponsored it for the last few years. When Amy and her colleagues make the rounds to judge. They don't feel the texture of the crumb. They don't compare butter creams. They don't even take a bite. instead judging goes something like this.
Fair goer: I think this one is really gross do you. Yeah, really? ugly, very good at decorating. Yes, the decorating is kind of pretty the idea is disgusting
SC: Amy is enthusiastic about all of the entries and gives out very generous scores. 98’s..99’s perfect one hundreds. But this year, there are a whopping 41 entries she in the other judges need to pick a favorite. And the Older Kids Division one baker blew everyone away.
Judge: And the baker is Taylor Weese from West Des Moines. Taylor, will you come up and show us how the heart beats.
Taylor: So basically, under it is actually a balloon, like beats the heart upwards. That was so hard to get into the cake. It was really fun honestly.
SC: For her efforts, Taylor takes home $500 in prize money, two tickets to the giant slide and the coveted title of Ugliest Cake at the Iowa State Fair.
Judge: Thank you very much and have fun.
CK: That was Milk Street producer Sarah Clapp. We'll check back on the fair later in the show. But right now, we'll dig into the history and impact of events like the Iowa State Fair with Marla Calico. She's the president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. Marla welcome to Milk Street.
Marla Calico: Thank you very much, Christopher. It's a pleasure to be here.
CK: You know, I go to the Washington County Fair every year near my farm in Vermont, and I love it. I’ve loved it for 30 years, because it's such an interesting mix of agricultural show right, my neighbors show off their cows or heifers, whatever. There's the fried onions and the carnival, it just has a little bit of something for everybody even have a barn with old kitchen equipment, which I love. I don't want to get too dewy eyed about this, but it's good, clean fun. It's family fun.
MC: That's exactly right.
CK: And you don't see that really in almost any other gathering in the in the country right?
MC: Yeah, you know, when you look at the components of a fair, and then ones that you just rattled off, you know, those components are going to be at every fair, but there will be variances and thus, no two fairs are alike. And I really think of fairs as the heartbeat of the community and whether that community is in your instance, a small rural county in Vermont, or, you know, San Diego County Fair is, for example, in Del Mar, but it is the heart of San Diego County and all that it represents.
CK: So maybe we should clear up a misnomer. People think about state fairs with the list of the top 10 fairs in the country that list only includes two state fairs. So, what is the right term agricultural fairs?
MC: Yeah, what sets our industry apart is at the heart of it is agriculture. And it is the celebration of agriculture. It's the recognition of agriculture. It's the ever-pressing need today to connect people to their food. And the fair is the best place to do that. So that they understand that food does not come from a grocery store. It comes from real people who are producing it.
CK: So, this came from England. And these agricultural expositions going back hundreds of years, but it was, it wasn't as populist it was landed gentry that were, you know, sort of sharing ideas about breeding etc.
MC: Yeah, that's exactly right. So, if you would look up at the makeup of those agricultural shows, they were very formal, you had to be a member of the society. But that model is what came to the United States and the King of England granted a license to the oldest fairs in North America, the York Fair in York, Pennsylvania, and the Hants exhibition in Nova Scotia.
CK: You said in this country, this started around 1811 or 1812, with a guy who was breeding sheep, for wool for US Army uniforms right?
MC: Yeah, Elkanah Watson had been an American patriot in the War of Independence, and he could see that another conflict was coming with England. And he thought that the United States needed to be dependent upon its own wool production. And so, he imported some merino sheep and brought him down into town under a shade tree so he could show him off to his neighbors. And shortly thereafter, within a few years, he had organized the community for other people to bring their sheep, their oxen, their dairy animals, and events being events, they still thought they needed some entertainment. They had some version of an early carnival ride, and they had food of course, food and drink was very much a part of that.
CK: So, you've worked in fairs all your life, you were the manager of the Ozark Empire fair for nearly three decades. (Yes) So as a fair manager, you know, what was that like? And I bet there was some unusual things you had to respond to along the way.
MC: Well, first of all, you're bringing together more people on a single day than most of the communities here in the Ozarks, so we had an 8000 seat, grandstand. And, you know, I've had a few scary moments. This one, it was a Friday night, the last concert of the fair, Ted Nugent was on stage. We were surrounded 360 degrees by thunderstorms, lightning, Ted Nugent had had to have a root canal earlier that day so, he was not in a good frame of mind. And ultimately, it blew over. We never had a speck of rain the lightning went away. But I was a nervous wreck and I would say if I'd been prone to ulcers, that would have been the day to give me one.
CK: As president of the International Association of Fairs and expositions, you obviously travel a lot, you go to a lot of fairs around the country, and I guess the world too. So how many agricultural fairs have you been to? And, you know, maybe describe a couple of the more unusual ones that you've visited?
MC: Okay. Well, I would be hard pressed to say the number of total fairs that I have visited in my lifetime. A couple though, that I might want to point out the Fryeburg fair, in Fryeburg Maine is probably
CK: I know that one yeah
MC: one of the most unique that I've ever attended in my life. Huge oxen show, huge draft horse show, they still have harness racing. And I think I mentioned earlier, the San Diego County Fair, you know, when we think about Southern California and how built up it is, and we don't think much about agriculture, and you think what would, what would a county fair look like in Southern California, and it's also has all of those categories. It has 4H’ers showing livestock, it's got competitive exhibits, and it's beautiful. You get on top of the Ferris wheel at the end of the midway. And when you're in the very top car, when it stops and kind of creeks back and forth. You look straight down into the Pacific Ocean. I've also had a chance to visit fairs in Korea. The one I went to twice was about rice, they actually had a rice field on the fairgrounds. They sent children out into that rice field; they had demos of everything from ancient ways of gleaning the rice off of the stocks to modern processing.
CK: So, let's talk about the food. No, the fried dough we know about in the fried onions and stuff. One I saw fried beer, which I guess is like a fried ravioli with a filling of beer, anything you've seen in the last few years. It's a little different or interesting.
MC: Oh, there's everything, everything, everything fried. You know, several state fairs actually offer competition for this. And one of them that I pay attention to are the sporkies at the Wisconsin State Fair. And some of their finalists were a fried pickle cheese curd taco. State Fair of Texas, they have deep fried butter. And it seems like one of the trends right now is to take a tall clear cup that you might use for an ice cream sundae and make a sundae out of things that have nothing to do with ice cream. You know, whether it's roast beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy with a cherry tomato on top of it, you have to get your you have to wrap your head around what you see in front of you and what the taste is.
CK: It's so interesting to me. It's not just selling things to people that tastes good. It's to give them a weird out of body culinary experience, right? I mean, there's something extra here, right?
MC: Well, it is. And then I think that we are just caught up in that culture of how things are presented to us, or you have tasted something that you've never had. And the foods and the combination of social media at fairs has become phenomenal.
CK: One of my favorite exhibits is always you know, the anthropomorphic zucchinis with eyes that turns into dragons. And then of course, there are the competitions for the jellies and the jams and the cakes. There's something I think really charming about looking at a piece of blueberry pie with a blue ribbon next to it. But also, some of these people, they take this pretty seriously, right?
MC: Well, it is very serious. And again, we have to take it back and think about how this all got started. So, if you take again, your example of a rural community fair in Vermont, the primary people coming to that may be just from right there. And if they're rural, you've got to maybe not so much now, but at least when I was growing up, you had to do everything. I mean, on the farm part of the rural lifestyle was you grew what you ate and so you baked it, you preserved it. All of those things came into it so you will see superstar exhibitors and passing that tradition down to their family.
CK: Could you talk about that where fairs isn't just a little entertainment, but it's something that's really become extremely personal and important to some people.
MC: Well, we talked about in our industry that fairs change lives. You know, we live in very difficult times right now. And as I've talked to fair managers, particularly over the last two and a half years, we know that the one thing we can offer society is a step away from all of that. In fact, one fair manager, I know they thought about putting a sign at the gate that says, drop your worries here, come on in and have fun, put a smile on your face. And when you think about the competitions, whether it's a young person entering those decorated vegetables, or whether they're walking into the livestock showroom that experience teaches them something, the preparation to get to that point, the discipline, the dedication, the fact that you've got to give up your own time and what you'd rather be doing in order to care for that animal. And I believe with all my heart, that when fairs do what they do, which is offering those type of experiences, they change lives.
CK: So, what about you, I mean, did fairs really change your life?
MC: So, you know, growing up, the fair was a big deal to my family, because my father had grown up showing Jersey dairy cattle. So, my very first experience at a fair was being in the womb of my mother two weeks before I was delivered, because she, my dad had to go see the jersey show. And so, I grew up, knowing that we were going to take, you know, at least one day or two days away from the farm to go to the fair. And I was a 4H’er showing cattle and making snickerdoodle cookies. And when I had an opportunity to start work at the fair when I was a freshman in college, and 19 years old, because I knew something about livestock and livestock shows, I jumped at the chance. And so, I pretty much grew up and spent most of my adult life in that environment.
CK: So,10 years from now, you think the county fair state fair will be very much alive and well? Do you think it will be different in any way or do you think it's just going to continue with the same traditions,
MC: There will always be the traditions, because we are events built upon tradition, I think we've moved into a new era of how we and I say we have because I'll always be a fair manager in my heart, how we communicate the story of food, the true story of what it takes to feed the world, because we have such a small amount of our population that actually involved in producing food. So, I think we're going to see some changes in that. But I think we will always be the place for developing youth, the future leaders of our communities, our states, our country and our world by offering them the opportunity to compete. And I do believe we will still be the place for the community to come together and to celebrate the very best of what our lives are like together in a community.
CK: Marla, it's been really a pleasure. Maybe I'll catch up with you the fair one time.
MC: I hope so.
CK: Thank you.
MC: Thank you so very much. It's been fun to talk with you.
CK: That was Marla Calico president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. After the break we're heading back to the Iowa State Fair to get up close and personal with a 600-pound cow carved entirely out of butter that in just a moment. This is Milk Street Radio I'm your host Christopher Kimball. It's time to get back to opening day of the Iowa State Fair. As Marla Calico mentioned roast beef sundaes and cheese curd tacos are some of the more popular menu items these days. But we also found rattlesnake corn dogs, bacon balls, and fair goers like Reed Marler, who told us that they often have one particular food they always seek out.
Reed: I'm here to eat a cheese on a stick at the Iowa State Fair There's two options. There's a normal mozzarella and there's a Cajun, and I'm going to get the Cajun of course, or maybe I get two cheeses on a steak. Who knows?
CK: Reed gave perhaps the best description of the offerings at the fair.
Reed: Think of a food that exists. And then you fry it. And then it's somewhere here. They got everything here fried and on a stick. It's insane. You want fried butter on a steak? I don't even know what that even will taste like. Well, I guess we probably all know exactly what that tastes like. Delicious.
CK: Deep fried butter on a stick was actually a short-lived phenomenon at the Iowa State Fair. It debuted in 2011 to honor the centennial of the fairs most iconic attraction. Milk Street producer Sarah Clapp brings us to see that attraction right now.
SC: It's 9:15 and opening day of the Iowa State Fair. And there's already a line maybe 125 people long in the John Deere agriculture building. These early birds are not in line for pig place or sheep stop or horse haven. And it's not the chainsaw carving demonstration or the turkey calling contest or even the new fried chicken glazed donut sandwich that they're here for
Fair goers: A lot of people are coming here just to see that butter cow. Yeah we probably we've been in line for like, yep, feels like 50 hours.
SC: These kids have probably been waiting 20 minutes, but still a long time when there's so much else to do. But wait, what is a butter cow anyway?
Fair goer: Well, I don't really know what it like. It says it’s called a butter cow. It's probably going to be a cow made out of butter.
SC: That is exactly right. It's a life-sized cow sculpted out of butter. It's been a tradition at the fair since 1911 and started as a promotion for the dairy industry. But the butter cow became an icon unto itself. And the cow isn't the fair's only butter sculpture. Ask lifelong fair goers like Dawn Gaffney, and they'll recall sculptures from years past
Fair goer: I remember there was like a Tiger Woods one and I saw a Last Supper and maybe like an Elmo one year. It's been a lot of them.
SC: This year that secondary sculpture is a scene from The Music Man and as the line grows it's getting touched up by its creator.
Fair goer: My name is Sarah Pratt. I am the butter sculptor at the Iowa State Fair, and I learned from my mentor Norma “Duffy” Lyon, who sculpted for over 45 years.
SC: Sarah's butter sculpting career started by accident when she was 13 and went to the fair with her friend Carrie.
Fair goer: We were both in 4H and she showed dairy cows I desperately wanted to be a farm girl and I when I found out they got to stay in the barn and sleep at the fair overnight. I wanted in but I failed miserably at taking care of cows. I had no experience and so they sent me to help Norma, which was Carrie’s great aunt in the butter cooler to keep me busy during the day while they were taking care of the cows. So that began an apprenticeship.
SC: This apprenticeship started with small tasks. Sarah helped wash buckets she softened butter. But over time she developed skills, artistry. And she also discovered that her mentor woman she'd known her whole life was something of a celebrity.
Fair goer: Everywhere you went on the fairgrounds people knew Norma “Duffy” Lyon and her confidence was just something that I didn't have like I didn't ask for things I wanted or advocated for myself, and I just saw her just be able to do that with such ease. Like she could just say this is what we're going to do.
SC: It's this confidence that landed Norma the job in the first place. Here's Norma talking to Iowa PBS 1999 the year of the Last Supper sculpture. “Duffy, I want to ask you about how you got started making butter sculpture?”
Norma: Well, it wasn't very nice. I saw a picture the interim guy that did it before the original guy did. And apparently, he had passed away. I didn't know anything about it. And he had done it for two years anyway, maybe three, and I happened to see a photograph and I just said I could do better than that.
SC: It's the same confidence that Sarah encountered when Norma thought about retiring after having a stroke.
Fair goer: That year when I went back to school, my mom called me and read me an article saying like she basically announced in the Des Moines Register that I would be taking over the next year without asking me which was really really smart on her part because I probably would have said no
SC: Norma didn't retire that year. But when she did the same thing happened, she announced Sarah’s promotion without telling her first. In 2006 Sara became the Fair’s lead sculptor. And since then, there has been one constant, the butter,
Sarah: Of course, let's like the probably the most precious commodity of the entire sculpture is this rich, amazing butter which is not cheap and a lot of energy from the cows and the farmer goes into making that butter and so the last time that we had to replace the butter completely was in 2005. The great thing about using recycled butter is that the longer you have it the more it acts like clay and a very moldable beautiful soft clay. That being said, then there was also the side effect of it not smelling great.
SC: So, what does 17-year-old butter smell like?
Sarah: It smells like blue cheese. So, it smells like aged dairy, which, you know, if you put it in that framework, you would like if you had a plate of all this aged cheese, you'd be like, oh my gosh it’s amazing, right? But if your mindset says butter, you don't expect that. So that's why I try to help people frame their mind as they come into the cooler to visit. Just think aged cheese, don't eat it. But but imagine
SC: Sarah has carved Snow White and the moon landing and over a dozen dairy cows with that recycled butter. But one sculpture stands out. The one she carved in 2011, for the 100th anniversary of the butter cow, she and Norma had planned something special.
Sara: She and I were going to be in the parade together and there was just lots of different events and celebrating her and her legacy. And she passed away about a month before the fair. And so, we'd already established what the sculpture was going to be it was going to be a likeness of the 1911 sculpture that had a cow and a calf and a boy. And I thought I need to incorporate Norma in the sculpture, but the only way for her to be seen is that people can see the sculpture for more than one side and how can that, how can I make that happen? And so, I've already shared that asking for things isn't necessarily my my go to like I tried to make it work out myself. But doing it for Norma inspired me to be more bold than I perhaps normally would have been. But I was able to get a local businessman, Arden Borden to build an industrial turntable that would hold the weight of the butter cow sculpture. And so that sculpture was able to rotate
SC: and that way everyone could see Norma posed with her hand wrestled lovingly on a butter cow. When Sara thinks to retire with Norma, she thinks of running across the fairground to buy fudge, listening to classical music on a boombox in the butter cooler, how much they laughed there, they sculpted Elvis, and now she's taken over enormous of their role as a butter sculpting mentor. Her apprentices are Hannah and Grace her twin daughters. One day they'll take over from their mom. But for now, the line keeps growing. The kids who waited 50 hours finally get to the front and this year sculptures are getting the attention they deserve.
CK: That was Milk Street producer Sarah Clapp. Our field producer at the Iowa State Fair was Nikki Tundle, you're listening to Milk Street Radio. We're heading into the kitchen with JM Hirsch to learn about this week's recipe. Eggplant Tahini dip. JM how are you?
JM Hirsch: I'm doing great.
CK: Now we all think of baba ganoush as a thing. But it turns out it's many things. I was recently in Turkey and had two or three very different versions. But you were in Jordan in the desert at night and had something quite different I think than anything I've ever tasted.
JM: Yeah, you know, I didn't realize that baba ganoush and the kind of cousin dip that I had which is called mutabal are terms that are used somewhat interchangeably across the Middle East. They both refer to cooked eggplant dips, and usually with some garlic and some lemon in them and people are kind of vague about what means what but in general, our understanding is that baba ganoush will generally contain some sort of tomato and some sort of walnut or other nut and mutabal will focus more on the charred eggplant with some very simple seasonings such as garlic and salt and lemon juice tahini. It's a simpler dip, but both of them are you know roasted eggplant-based dips that are really creamy and rich. So, I was in the desert in a Bedouin camp where they had prepared flatbread for me that ended up almost cracker thick and it was really delicious. They cook it in the ashes of the fire that kept us warm all night. And then my guide, Ihab Muhtaseb decided kind of spur of the moment that he was going to make something to go with this flatbread and he offered to make mutabal and he throws the eggplant into the hot ashes of the fire and lets them char in time they take on that rich crispy exterior, they're kind of deflating into themselves. Once they were well charred, he took them out of the ashes and threw them into a bowl where he pretty much chopped them up and he peeled them a little bit but mostly just chopped them up, threw in some garlic threw in some salt, some lemon juice some tahini, stirred it all up and then topped it with pomegranate molasses and fresh pomegranate seeds. And the result was crazy good. I just, you know, again, we say this all the time simple ingredients prepared simply can be amazing and frankly often are the most amazing. And that was certainly the case with mutabal again, it's, you know, kind of a cousin of baba ganoush. So delicious, so rich, so creamy. But then you get those kinds of sharp tangy notes from the pomegranate and the lemon against the kind of creamy richness of the tahini and the sharp notes of the garlic and the rich char of the eggplant. It was really just such a complex, yet simple dip. It was really wonderful.
CK: Yeah, and I think the idea of cooking eggplant to death, really, as you said and collapses in itself. It gets this rich texture and flavor that's totally different than let's say sauteed slices of eggplant, right? It's a totally different thing.
JM: It really does. I mean, first, of course, you're getting the charring which deepens the flavor right off the bat. But you know, you're also concentrating on the flavors. You know, eggplant is, you know, such a high percentage of water that as it cooks in those ashes, in my case, it's concentrating those flavors so your getting kind of that creamy richness that wonderful, silky texture and it was really just really lovely.
CK: So a version of Baba ganoush eggplant and tahini dip, or mutabal cooked in the ashes of fire in the desert in Jordan. That's a long way from Boston, JM (Indeed) but I think you've enjoyed every minute of it. Thank you.
JM: Thank you. You can get the recipe for eggplant and tahini dip at Milk Street radio.com.
CK: That's it for this week's show. You can find all of our episodes on Apple podcast, Spotify, Milk Street Radio.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can learn more about Milk Street at 177 Milk street.com. There you can become a member get full access to every recipe and access to all of our live stream cooking classes plus free standard shipping from the Milk Street store and more. We're on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street on Facebook. It's Christopher Columbus Milk Street. We'll be back next week and thanks as always for listening.
Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH. Co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sensabaugh, Senior Editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp, Assistant Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media and Woods Hole Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.