An encore by Mr. Porkchop
BANCROFT – Count the kisses from admiring fans, count the thousands of satisfied customers, count the miles on the odometer of the iconic pink tour bus, during the annual RAGBRAI event and Paul Bernhard is like a rock star. And like any great rock star the man that RAGBRAI riders know as “Mr. Porkchop” is getting ready to treat his fans to an encore performance.
“I’m very excited. It’s always great to go and meet all the people,” Bernhard said, looking forward to his final one-day visit with RAGBRAI later this month. “Those cyclists are a great bunch. They always make it a great time and leave things in better order than they found it.”
Bernhard would know; for 24 years, from 1983 to 2007 Mr. Porkchop served untold thousands of corn cob-grilled pork chops to hungry riders in need of a protein fix. On July 28, when the ride passes just 20 miles south of his Bancroft home, riders will hear the unmistakable beller of his signature, “Pooork Chaaaaaaawwpp!” Something they haven’t haven’t heard in three years.
It’s an appeal as uncomplicated as the product. Paul Bernhard is the face of the operation – Mr. Porkchop, the garrulous patriarch who takes the cash, makes the change and offers a little encouragement to each customer.
The Iowa Chop is the meal, a 1.25-inch thick cut prime Iowa pork cooked over corncobs and wrapped in a paper towel and ready to eat.
“We get huge crowds and they’re all hungry,” Bernhard said. “We don’t need to keep them waiting any longer than it takes to get the money and hand them a pork chop.”
As no nonsense as the formula is, Mr. Porkchop is a product of a classic farmyard innovation.
In the 1970s Bernhard, who was raising 3,000 hogs as well as considerable herds of sheep and cattle on his farm southeast of Seneca, was looking for a better way to satisfy the hunger of customers who came to pork producer events in Kossuth County. His solution was to cut a traditional pork chop thicker and thicker, eventually up to 1.25 inches.
When RAGBRAI came through Kossuth in the 1980s Bernhard took full advantage of the chance to show off his creation.
“The route came into Bancroft from the east then left through the south,” Bernhard said. “We set up barricades so they would have to come straight down Main street and come by us. We sold 2,100 pork chops that first year.”
Encouraged by the success Bernhard decided to take his Iowa Chop on the road. Once on the route he found regular charcoal grills too difficult to extinguish and required too much expensive fuel for practical everyday use. The simple and cheap solution was corncobs, a fuel Bernhard’s father had long used for cooking and sausage making back on the farm.
“It worked out really well, because corncobs have their own unique flavor,” Bernhard said. “I used to tell my dad that I couldn’t get that flavor he would make and he would tell me, ‘You have to use corncobs.'”
The distinctive pink Porkchop bus, the Mr. Porkchop apron and ball cap, all came later; but became instantly recognizable fixtures of the July roadside.
After 27 years, Bernhard sold his last chop in 2007, but was called back the following summer by Iowa Boy writer Chuck Offenburger, who decided Mr. Porkchop needed a proper sendoff. Though he admits to probably never having made as much money as his neighbors imagine he did, Bernhard says he enjoyed every moment of following RAGBRAI.
“It was always great fun and the people are so great and appreciative,” Bernhard said. “I decided I needed to quit when I turned 80, but when it’s so close off course I’m going to do it again.”
Except that the pork chop call is now sounded by Bernhard’s son, Matt Bernhard, who spent years helping out on a grill and intends to keep the operation going as long as the Iowa Chop remains the power lunch of choice for hungry cyclists.
But, if a pork chop wrapped in a paper towel seems a bit to simple for some tastes, there is no rule saying it can’t be part of a meal.
“Absolutely I still have one every so often,” Bernhard said. “They’re good with hash browns, coleslaw, a lot of things. Sometimes for breakfast I’ll have one with a couple of eggs.”
Ersel’s BBQ sauce
2.5 cups ketchup
1 cup white sugar
1.5 cup brown sugar
.5 cup salad oil
Blend until sugar dissolves. Bring to a soft boil then let stand.
Apply to pork patties or pork chops after final turn on the grill. May let stand for short time in insulated container to let flavor settle in.
Use an open deep pit barbecue with corncobs as a heat and smoke source. Turn approximately every five minutes basting each time with a light spray of butter and seasoning of choice.
Continue for about 1 hour at around 180 degrees. Chops can stand in an insulated container for around 10 minutes.
Contact Kevin Stillman at email@example.com.
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