Sunday, June 19, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Iowa I - Loose Meats Sink, er, Tractors?

Continuing my whirlwind tour of the Midwest, I explore some of the dishes unique to, or easily found in, Iowa, the home of The Music Man, the nation's first presidential caucus of election season and corn - lots of corn.

Official Name: State of Iowa
State Nicknames: The Hawkeye State
Admission to the US: December 28, 1846 (#29)
Des Moines (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Cedar Rapids (2nd largest), Davenport (3rd largest), Sioux City (4th largest)
Region: Midwest; East North Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Cornbread & BBQ, Bison
Bordered by:
Minnesota (north); North Dakota, Nebraska (west); Missouri (south); Illinois, Wisconsin & the Mississippi River (east)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: none
Some Famous & Typical Foods: again, typical Midwestern foods, especially corn; Native American and pioneer foods; soybeans; Red Delicious and "Hawkeye" apples; Dutch, German, Amish and Scandinavian foods

Marcia Adams (who wrote the Heartland cookbook, which I've been using a lot lately), notes that Iowa is home to German, Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants, as well as Americans from the South and the Great Lakes region (yes, Midwesterners moving further west). These folks brought their food traditions, sometimes combining them with the local foods grown by Native Americans. Mind you, this is not just corn country, but soybean country and pork country as well. According to the Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa is the leading producer of both corn and soybeans in the nation, and over a quarter of all pork sold in the United States comes from Iowa (Iowa Farm Bureau 2011).

Strange, then, that I did not eat anything with corn or soy in it. I take that back: it's quite probable that something I used in this recipe had some sort of corn or soy derivative in it, since both these crops are everywhere, both in our foods and elsewhere.

My first recipe is an Iowan classic. This sandwich goes by many names, so notes Jane and Michael Stern - another two authors whose books I have constantly consulted over the past month of recipes: "Big T, Charlie Boy, and Tastee" (Stern and Stern 2009: 266). The Sterns point to the origin of this fast food favorite in Sioux City's Ye Olde Tavern - hence the popular name "the tavern" - by David Heglin in 1924. By the time the place closed almost 50 years later, it was being eaten all over northwestern Iowa (Stern and Stern 2009).

If you don't want to make this, you can find it at the Stewart's Root Beer on Route 40 in Rosedale. The one time I went there on my Beltway Snacking tour, I didn't quite know what to make of their "steamburger". The steamburger is, in essence, the loosemeats sandwich. Don't ask me how it made it out of northwest Iowa but it did.

If you do want to make this, it's easy, as I followed a recipe that the Sterns published in their Roadfood Sandwiches cookbook (yes, the same one from which I got the Indiana breaded pork tenderloin sandwich and the Illinois horseshoe sandwich). There are different versions of this recipe, as cherished from family to family as is recipes for our crab cake. The Sterns post a different loosemeats recipe on their Roadfood website. But again, I stuck with the book.

The recipe: Loosemeats

I am not sure which restaurant provided the Sterns with their recipe, but I assume this is a typical one: tomato-free, though it has a flavor that is just rich enough that you realize you don't need them. Not even in ketchup form.

For the Sterns' loosemeats sandwich - enough for four servings - you will need:

* one pound ground beef (on sale at the Harris Teeter for about $5.50)
* oil in which to brown the ground beef (had peanut oil on hand)
* an onion (all I had were shallots and a red onion; I used the latter)
* red wine vinegar (this will give it a tang since you will not be using tomatoes in any format)
* salt and pepper (natch)
* hamburger buns (had them)
* various condiments, including pickles, mustard and cheese (all optional)

First, brown the ground beef in a skillet, breaking it up into small pieces - the Sterns say to "worry" the meat. (I like that description). Once the meat is worried, chop the onion and add it to the meat (to make it cry) with some salt (to rub into the wound - oh wow, I'm on a roll here. And soon, so will the loosemeats!). Ignore the bad puns, and cook until light brown.

Drain the meat when it is light brown, and then add the vinegar, pepper and enough water to cover it almost completely. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. The water should almost be simmered off; scoop the meat out with a slotted spoon if it isn't.

Scoop onto hamburger buns, and top with whatever you like - mustard, pickles, cheese - so long as it isn't tomato based.

I liked this unusual and easy sandwich. The vinegar gives it a zing that I don't expect from ground beef. I topped mine with leftover shredded mozzarella and provolone, and it melted right in place. Eat it with or without cheese - it is just as tasty either way. The easiness of this sandwich is, I think, one of its best attributes. The only downside, and it's not a big one, is that it is much better fresh out of the pan than it is reheated. One word of advice: heat the meat separately, and then put it on the bun. It's also better to spoon the meat onto the bigger half of the bun. Both pieces of advice should minimize how sopping wet your roll may become unless you eat it immediately.


Adams, Marcia. Heartland: The Best of the Old and the New from Midwest Kitchens. Clarkson Potter: New York, 1991.

Iowa Farm Bureau. "Ag Facts". Copyright Iowa Farm Bureau, 2011.

Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. 500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Boston, 2009.

Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. Roadfood Sandwiches. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2007.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Iowa" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Iowa".