Historic State Fair food stand serves up soul food
You know it’s a good day when it’s not even 10 a.m. and you’re already enjoying a slice of homemade apple pie at the great Iowa State Fair. That’s what I was doing on the first day of the 2017 fair, at the West Des Moines United Methodist Church’s historic food stand, and I got a tantalizing side of history along with my pie.
I knew I was in the right place when I saw the long line of people at the food stand around 8:30 a.m. waiting patiently for breakfast. “We’ve been incredibly busy, which is a great problem to have,” said Courtney Chabot Dreyer, a 17-year member of the church who has been volunteering at the food stand for 15 years.
The food stand has always been located in its current spot near the livestock barns, ever since church members decided to sell food at the state fair starting in 1949. The famous food stand is the last vestige of the area known as Church Row, where a group of churches once hosted dining halls. In fact, the West Des Moines United Methodist Church’s food stand is the last remaining Christian organization to run a food stand on the fairgrounds, making them the final legacy of a tradition of service that dates back to the very first Iowa State Fair in 1854.
And serve they have. While the West Des Moines United Methodist Church’s food stand is famous for its biscuits and gravy, which has been on the menu since 1949, people also flock to the stand for pecan rolls, cinnamon rolls, hot breakfasts and some of the best coffee at the fairgrounds. Other guests stop by to try the food stand’s new offerings each year, including Stew’s Big Boy Breakfast. New for 2017, this hearty offering includes scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, biscuit and gravy.
Some guests head over from the nearby Swine Barn, Cattle Barn, Sheep Barn, Horse Barn or Livestock Pavilion, while others stroll by and stop for a bite to eat. Some take their food on the go, while others waited to take a seat at a stool along the diner-style counter.
“I love working here on the first day of the fair,” said Chabot Dreyer, who lives in Johnston. “It’s always busy, and there’s so much excitement.”
The food stand actually opens the Tuesday before the fair officially opens a few days later. The church members serve the many people who are already on the fairgrounds, working and preparing for the big opening day on Thursday.
While the food stand has been an integral part of the state fair’s culinary history for decades, it wasn’t until the last few years that church members addressed one missing element – something on a stick. Since they didn’t have food on a stick, they added prayer on a stick. In addition to taking prayer on a stick home with them, fairgoers can write their prayer requests on small cards at the food stand.
“Every day of the fair we collect prayer requests,” said Chabot Dreyer, whose sons also volunteer at the food stand. “We take these requests to the church every night, and our members pray about these needs.”
Now that’s a whole new twist on soul food, and it’s an important mission for church members. The food stand is also the church’s largest fundraiser of the year, with proceeds going to the church’s mission work.
While there are lots of benefits, running the food stand isn’t easy. The unending need for volunteers, tighter health codes each year, ongoing maintenance costs and more make the food stand a complex operation. Still, church members vow to return every year they’re able.
These friendly, gracious Iowans still do things the old-fashioned way, which is just how fairgoers like It. When you stop by the West Des Moines Methodist food stand, you know they’re going to serve you right.
Of course the breakfast food and pie are great, but more importantly, there’s soul food here. The church members take the time to sit and visit with you and make you feel welcome. This welcoming spirit is what brings people back year after year, much like the great Iowa State Fair itself.
Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby (a.k.a) Yetter-girl grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.
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