Saturday, May 5, 2012

Iowa State of Mind

As a rural state with a small population, Iowa seems to punch above its weight class on many levels. Every four years it becomes the center of the political world and every year it seems to be the location for some interesting movie (usually about a sports underdog). It's also the kind of place where complete strangers will wave to you while they drive by the small town diner where you're enjoying breakfast. As we headed north into Iowa to visit friends, it was the Dutch and German "cuisine" that sparked our interest. Iowa is best known for its corn, but its what that juicy corn does for the cattle, deer, pigs, and other wild game that is really special. Add to that the skill with which the Dutch and German artisans manage to butcher, season, smoke and cure these meats, and Iowa becomes a carnivore's dream come true.

Our first stop was the historic town of Pella. Founded by Dutch settlers in the 1840's, Pella now prides itself on that Dutch heritage including its annual Tulip Festival, the Pella Bologna unique to their meat shops, and what seems to be the largest selection of wooden shoes available this side of the Netherlands. They also have the largest working windmill in The US still used to grind flour (Iowa also leads the nation in the wind-powered generation of electricity).

We decided to splurge and stay at a state park that actually provided electricity. We were right on the Des Moines river near the site of Red Rock Lake, the largest lake in Iowa.

Following our stay at Red Rock Lake, we spent eight days in Cedar Rapids with our friends Denny and Cheryl. Denny and Cheryl did their best to make sure we visited every micro brewery, winery, meat locker and interesting restaurant in the region. With their wine cellar holding one of the largest selection of Rocinante wines in the US, they also hosted two wine tastings at their house which saw some of the largest per capita consumption of Rocinante wines ever recorded.

Two visits were particularly noteworthy. 

The Millstream Brewery at the Amana Colonies just south of Cedar Rapids ( has one of the best lineups of beers we've tasted anywhere. They are probably hard to find outside of Iowa, but are worth the effort to locate. 

The Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery (  was also a treat. While Iowa's climate makes red wine production difficult, some of the hybrid white grape varietals do really well. The LaCrescent is as aromatic and brightly textured as any Riesling from CA and OR. It's has just enough residual sugar to taste great with spicy Asian dishes. The distilled spirits were simply outstanding. The whiskey, bourbon, and vodka are textbook perfect. The Clearheart Gin in particular was as fine an example of the art as you'll find. It is lighter on the harsh juniper notes and emphasizes the aromatic cucumber, orange and cardamon botanicals.

Our final nights in Iowa were spent in La Mars. This small western Iowa town is the home of Wells' Dairy, the maker of Blue Bunny ice cream. There is more ice cream made in Le Mars than any other one location on earth, allowing the local chamber of commerce to claim the town as the Ice Cream Capital of the World. At 250,000 gallons per day, that's a lot of ice cream (and the town smells like pralines and waffle cones). 
Since it's impossible to survive on ice cream alone, we also made a pilgrimage to Archie's Waeside (, a family-owned steakhouse dating back to the 1940's. We enjoyed a 28 ounce, dry-aged, center cut  fillet for about the same price we'd pay for a couple of burgers and pints of beer in Napa Valley. Life is good!

Our last night in Iowa was spent at a small city park in Le Mars. We've been able to find multiple waterside campsites either for free or for under $10/night. It's probably just early in the season. It will be amazing if we're still finding these empty/free spots during the summer.


  1. I could live here "...and the town smells like pralines and waffle cones." YUM!

    Sounds like a great time in Iowa!

  2. An excellent read. How great it is as a reader to see the windmill chase in real time!!

    I'd be very curious to hear about your driving impressions and parking experience. Have you found it to be a quick learning curve?

    Now where do I get my hands on some Rocinante? That will be MY quest.

  3. Driving is the easy part. We've gotten into some tight spots boon docking. I'm not down to the level of success on the first try, but parking is getting easier!
    We'll have some Rocinante for you when we swing by your way next October.