For fans of down-home cooking, Iowa is the place to be. Many of the state’s most famous foods are backyard barbecue-style dishes that will leave you feeling well-fed and satisfied, with maybe a touch of childhood nostalgia.
“The Hawkeye State” is known for many things, including its agricultural. With it comes plenty of filling meals, dishes, and comfort foods to keep these Midwestern residents’ bellies full. Let’s take a look at nine of our favorite dishes from Iowa, in no particular order:
While some Iowans assert that pork tenderloin was invented in Cedar Rapids, it most likely originated in Huntington, Indiana in the early 1900s. No matter, though– today, the breaded and fried meat dish is an integral part of Iowa’s culinary landscape.
Like many Midwestern dishes, pork tenderloin was born out of an attempt to Americanize a traditional European dish; in this case, Weiner schnitzel from Germany. Weiner schnitzel didn’t work well for blue-collar Americans. It was served on a plate and covered in gravy, meaning it wasn’t very portable. It was also made from veal, which wasn’t popular in the area.
To make the dish appeal to Midwesterners, restaurant owner Nicholas Freinstein substituted pork for veal and served it between two buns. The dish quickly grew in popularity, showing up on menus throughout Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois. This area is sometimes called the “pork tenderloin corridor”.
In Iowa, pork tenderloin sandwiches usually use pork loin chops, rather than actual pork tenderloin. The meat is breaded and deep-fried, then served on a bun with hamburger toppings– often pickles, lettuce, ketchup, and mustard.
Lid’s Bar & Grill in Waukon serves award-winning pork tenderloin. The restaurant used to be a car dealership but became a supper club-style eatery during the pandemic. Their menu primarily consists of American-style food.
These days, just about anything can be a salad– even dessert. Snickers salad is an amalgamation of Snickers candy bars, Granny Smith apples, whipped cream, and pudding. It’s the sort of dish you might find at a neighborhood potluck or church picnic.
Variations of Snickers salad may also include sliced bananas, sour cream, crushed pineapple, or caramel syrup. It’s not clear where the salad first appeared, but it is sometimes included in church cookbooks. It is part of an entire category of dessert salads popular in the Midwest. Other similar dishes include Watergate salad, cookie salad, and Jell-O salad.
You’re more likely to find Snickers salad at backyard cookouts than at restaurants, but it’s simple enough to make yourself. All you’ll need is:
- 1.5 cups cold 2% milk
- 1 box (3.4 oz.) instant vanilla pudding
- 1 tub (8 oz.) of Cool Whip, thawed
- 4 Granny Smith apples, chopped
- 4 Snickers bars, chopped
Simply whisk together the milk and pudding mix for 2 minutes, then allow the mixture to set. Fold in Cool Whip, then add the apples and Snickers pieces. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
We would be remiss to create a list of famous foods in Iowa without mentioning corn. Of course, corn is a major crop in most Midwestern states, but Iowa has them all beat. The Hawkeye State produces more than 2 billion bushels of corn every year, more than any other state in the country (though Illinois and Nebraska aren’t far behind).
99% of the corn produced in Iowa is known as “field corn.” This type of corn is used in farming, ethanol production, and manufacturing. The remaining 1%, however, is sweet corn.
Sweet corn season lasts for roughly 5 weeks in late summer. During this time, cities and towns all across Iowa throw sweet corn festivals. These festivals often feature parades, concerts, competitions, food trucks, and beer gardens. Some of them even give ears of corn away for free.
You can find fresh, frozen, and canned sweet corn at just about every grocery store in the United States. Nothing, however, tastes better than fresh-from-the-farm ears of corn.
Grimes Sweet Corn is a fully operational farm in Granger that is open to the public. Their sweet corn is typically available from July to mid-October. They also sell melons, tomatoes, and pumpkins.
Two of America’s favorite foods come together in this dish. Taco pizza is just what it sounds like– pizza crust piled high with taco toppings. It’s not exactly certain where or when taco pizza was invented, but as far as Iowans are concerned, the Quad Cities area gets to take credit.
The story behind Iowa’s favorite pizza starts at Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream. Joe Whitty, the restaurant owner, invented the dish after a franchisee wanted to add tacos to the menu in 1974. Whitty didn’t like that idea, but he did like the idea of creating a taco-inspired pizza. He called it the Taco Joe.
Taco pizza starts with a puffy pizza crust covered in tomato paste. Refried beans, cheese, ground meat, lettuce, and diced tomato make up the toppings. The entire thing is then covered with crushed tortilla strips.
The dish is a very Americanized version of tacos– it does not usually contain peppers, spices, or herbs traditionally used in Mexican food. It’s popular enough, however, that Pizza Hut, Godfather’s Pizza, and Taco Bell all created their own versions of taco pizza.
Happy Joe’s has 19 locations in Iowa. They all serve Taco Joe and Taco Supreme pizzas. Pizza can be ordered online or in-store.
Like pork tenderloin, scotcheroos are a dish that didn’t originate in Iowa but are especially popular here. The recipe was first printed on a Kellogg’s Rice Krispies box in the mid-20th century. It’s a simple recipe with easy-to-find ingredients, which made it popular in rural Iowa.
Scotcheroos are made from Rice Krispie cereal mixed with peanut butter, melted chocolate, and butterscotch. The mixture is poured into a pan, allowed to harden, then cut into bars. It’s a dessert often found at potlucks and family gatherings.
Scotcheroos are easy enough to make at home, but they can also be found at bakeries throughout Iowa. Beyond the Bar Bakery in Decorah is a tiny local shop that sells a large number of baked goods on a rotating menu. Their scotcheroos and one-bite cakes are very popular.
Also called a loose meat sandwich, Maid-Rites were invented in the 1920s in Muscatine, Iowa. It’s similar to a sloppy joe, in that the hamburger meat is not formed into a patty. The sandwiches are often topped with mustard, pickles, and chopped onion.
Legend has it that Fred Angell, a butcher at the time, steamed hamburger meat and added a specific combination of spices. He put the meat between two buns and offered the sandwich to a delivery man. The delivery man said “this sandwich is made right”, and Maid-Rite sandwiches were born.
Fred franchised his idea and four Maid-Rite shops popped up in Iowa in the 1920s. All four of these shops are still in operation today, along with a dozen more. Today, the shops also offer salads, wraps, and desserts.
Steak de Burgo
Steak de burgo is a regional specialty that was invented in the 1950s in Des Moines. Beyond that simple fact, though, things get controversial. Some say the dish originated at Johnny and Kay’s restaurant, while others credit Vic’s Tally-Ho. Some cook the meat in olive oil; some charbroil it before topping it with sauce.
In general, when you order steak de burgo, you can expect to get beef tenderloin served in a sauce loaded with garlic and Italian seasonings. Depending on the restaurant, the sauce may be butter- or cream-based.
Regardless of who invented the dish and exactly how it is served, the fact remains that it’s a very popular dish in Des Moines. It’s so ingrained in the city’s culture that many Iowans are surprised to learn it’s not widely served outside of the area.
Chicago Speakeasy is a Prohibition-style supper club in Des Moines. They serve highly-rated steak de burgo, among other dishes of steak, fish, and chicken. They also have an extensive drink menu.
Puppy chow is actually human food, but it’s understandable if you were confused. The snack began with the Ralston Purina Company– the same company that makes Purina dog food.
Purina was the initial producer of Chex cereal (General Mills acquired it in 1996). In the mid-1900s, it was sometimes called “human chow”. This is likely where puppy chow got its name, though it’s not clear who first created the sweet treat.
Also known as “muddy buddies”, puppy chow could be considered the sweet version of Chex mix. To make the dish, a combination of melted butter, peanut butter, and chocolate is poured over Chex cereal. The entire mix is then coated in a layer of powdered sugar. It’s popular throughout the Midwest, including in Iowa.
Many Midwesterners can recall snacking on puppy chow as early as the 1960s, though General Mills didn’t create an official recipe til 2002. The treat is often homemade and is sometimes served at parties or given as a holiday gift. For those who don’t want to make it themselves, though, General Mills sells it commercially under the “Muddy Buddies” name.
If you’re not from the Midwest, maybe you’d thought we’d run out of potluck dishes to talk about. Not so. In Iowa, there is always another generations-old recipe waiting to be dug out for the next family reunion.
Ham balls are essentially a Midwestern take on regular meatballs. They’re a combination of ground beef, ground ham, and graham cracker crumbs, formed into spheres and coated in sauce. The sauce is usually a sweet-ish tomato-based glaze. They’re typically baked and served in a 9×13 dish.
Like many other famous Iowa dishes, you’re unlikely to find ham balls in many restaurants. If you find yourself lucky enough to be invited to a neighborhood picnic, keep an eye out for the sweet-yet-savory dish. If you can, eat your ham balls alongside an ear of sweet corn, and maybe some mashed potatoes.
Like many places in the Midwest, Iowa is home to dishes that are best served when surrounded by people you love. And don’t worry– if you find a new favorite food, someone is sure to send you home with the recipe, and likely some leftovers too.