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welcome to scuzzy iowa!
a guidebook for caucus attendees
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

If you’re planning to visit Iowa in 2012, I presume you’ve read a certain dismissive diatribe by University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom in The Atlantic. And, as some people are prone to do, perhaps you considered it a gospel account of life in Iowa. Scuzzy river towns. Desolate rural areas. Scary Deliverance-type meth-head hunters.

Jell-O eaters.

A shame, really, because it’s so easy to stereotype a culture, race, or population. Why, if I were feeling nasty, I could devise a number of derogatory aspects about 60-year-old Jewish men from New Jersey that Bloom might take issue with, but why be that meanspirited?

The supposed point of Bloom’s opinion piece (and please, this writer/editor begs you to not measure it on journalistic merit, because it was riddled with enough typos, factual errors, and trumped-up pontification to make an episode of “Jersey Shore” look like a sit-down with Charlie Rose), was to demonstrate what he considered “undeniable truths” about Iowans. If we were to believe his lede (but the narrative loses direction so quickly, how can we?), the piece intended to demonstrate how Iowans are grossly unqualified to crack champagne on the bow of the presidential cruise ship every four years known as the Iowa Caucuses.

Right. Iowans are the weird ones populating the country’s political landscape. Sure, some of us may have reelected Terry Branstad as governor, because there was simply no one else from whom to choose, but at least he’s not Rod Blagojevich, Edwin Edwards, Rick Perry, Eliot Spitzer, or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Or Jesse Ventura. Chips and crackers, was that a feather boa-riddled circus or what?

I’m not an Iowa native. I’ve lived on farms, in big cities, and in small towns around the U.S. I’ve traveled to other places throughout the world. While I hate snow and cold, there are personal reasons that compel me to live in Iowa right now. When I’m ready to leave, I simply will.

Until that time comes, let me share with you a few things you won’t find in the Lonely Planet guide on Iowa, much less in Bloom’s piece, to make your stay more enjoyable.

Please don’t confuse Des Moines with Los Angeles or New York. If you come to Des Moines anticipating it to be like either of those cities, amend your expectations. I presume many of you will fly in on Sunday, January 1st and leave Wednesday, January 4th. In between arrival and departure is a holiday for most people on Monday, January 2nd, and of course caucuses on Tuesday, January 3rd. So while the streets won’t actually be rolled up, it’s going to be quiet. Fair warning.

But here are some things to do within walking distance or at least a 10-minute taxi ride of your downtown hotel: Catch an indy movie at The Fleur Cinema and Cafe or The Varsity; check your messages while hanging around the multi-million dollar Pappajohn Sculpture Garden; visit the Botanical Center for greenspace relief; wander through the skywalk system or jog around Gray’s Lake; shop in East Village or Valley Junction.

You should be honest with yourself, however. In the 72-hours you have to chase candidates and file stories, you won’t have time for diddly-squat else. I've been embedded with more than a few journalists. I understand. Please don’t complain you didn’t leave your hotel room because there wasn’t anything to do in Des Moines.

There's more to the Iowa landscape than interstate and cornfields. Every time a coastal photog rolls video on Iowa, the main image is a silo against a sunset.

This is exactly the image the rest of the country needs in order to understand Iowa. All of its residents are entombed in a silo! (gasp!)

Instead of playing to the same stereotype of Iowa that Bloom did (because after all, no other state has farmland! Or rural areas! Or small towns in dire need of viable industry!), try a nice downtown angle. Or a shot of a hip shopping district, instead of folks at a giant mall. Slip over to Fairfield for a view of the Maharishi Transcendental Meditation gold domes gleaming at sunrise. Or of a Hindu temple rising out of the middle of a cornfield near Madrid (MA-drid, not MUH-drid). Or the country’s longest standing mosque, located in Cedar Rapids. Seek out the old stone mansions, the stately Victorians along small town Main Street, the historic buildings with rows of American flags mounted on facades. Go to the top of the bluffs for long shots of the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers.

I’m sure even the fine folks of Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse, and Cazenovia, New York, get tired of seeing the Empire State Building onscreen whenever the state is mentioned. Get curious. Move the camera around. You might be surprised at what you find.

You don’t have to eat fried food if you don’t want to. Within 20 minutes of my house on Des Moines’ Southside (yo, represent!), there are the following ethnic cuisine options available: Bosnian, Laotian, Indian, Cajun, Jewish, Chinese BBQ, Lebanese, Honduran, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Italian (not EYE-talian). Many creative chefs of various styles create fusions of fresh, sometimes even organic, ingredients and flavor combinations that make American food real tasty. Best of all? You don’t have to make reservations a month in advance. If you eat a cold burger and soggy fries from room service, it’s not Iowa’s fault.

However, I realize you may not be in Des Moines, or Cedar Rapids, or Iowa City, or Davenport, or Council Bluffs, but instead traveling the countryside. Consequently, diverse food options might be limited. May I suggest you take the same action as you do when you visit an extended relative’s house: be polite and go with the flow, assured you can detox later if necessary. Have a pork tenderloin as big as a hubcap. Dig in to the hash browns slathered in bacon grease. Eat the damn Jell-O with shaved carrots floating in it. Every region has its culinary identity, and the stick-to-your-ribs stuff is part of the Midwest. Smile and tip well, sated with the knowledge that you just helped a local family keep the lights on in their little diner for one more day, and they are truly thankful to you for that opportunity.

Stay away from smelt, though. Honestly.

Remember, Iowans take this caucus stuff quite seriously. Some coastie journalists think their main goal when they land in Iowa is to find the least respectable people to interview about politics. Don’t try to deny it -- I’ve seen the news coverage. For example, they might think at first glance the older gentleman in a seed cap is a backwoods farmer who couldn’t do anything better with his career path than get his hands dirty. The probable reality is he’s a CEO of a major operation who has 600 acres valued at about $3,000 an acre.

That silo looks a little different now, doesn’t it?

Yes, there’s a strong possibility that farmer is a conservative. He’s going to have an opinion. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But Iowa legalized same-sex marriage in 2009 (before New York, and after California recalled it in Prop 8), two years after its residents evaluated Barack Obama and considered him to be the most viable Democratic presidential candidate for the 2008 race. Nothing wrong with those actions, either.

Iowa may not be the most diverse culturally or ethnically compared to the populations of California or New York, but truly, which states are? Nevertheless, Iowa is comprised of thousands of intelligent, informed people who have made it their business to promote the importance of American democracy for more than 30 years.

So when you seek out people to talk to during the Caucuses, expect to find those supporting all parties, impassioned about this institution of grassroots political processes, and willing to turn away from the latest pop culture hoopla to educate themselves about the candidates, the platforms, and the issues that many Americans have questions about. It’s fascinating to unite with your neighbors, people who you wave to each day (we do that a lot in Iowa -- it’s just the vibe around here), and discuss ideas and individuals in a forum of respect and dignity.

Iowans grasp the essential opportunity to rise up peacefully as a collective and have a say in the turnover of government. Many of us believe that primaries simply don’t do the process justice; all states should caucus so more people can be involved, instead of feeling as though their opinions don’t matter.

So, come to Iowa. I hope you enjoy your visit. And it’s okay if you want to return with your family and stay a little longer. Many people do.


Further reading
~"Observations of 20 Years of Iowa Life", Bloom’s withering opinion.

More insightful and factual reflections on the identity of Iowa and the value of the caucus:

~"Look to Iowa's Future, Not Its Past", by Bernard Sherman, Iowa Public Radio.
~"In Defense of Iowa's Food", by Chef Kurt Michael Friese, founding leader of Slow Food Iowa.
~"Iowa Serves the Presidential Nomination Process Well", by David Redlawsk, professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Caroline Tolbert, professor of political science at the University of Iowa.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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tracey kelley
12.28.11 @ 1:47p

Update: while my acreage numbers are averaged from late 2010 estimations (low end: $3,000 high end: $5,500), a December 2011 ISU Extension study raises that value to $6,708.

Thanks to all who read and noticed!

sloan bayles
12.29.11 @ 2:56p

Edwin Edwards, heh heh. True dat.

russ carr
12.29.11 @ 7:28p

Look, if you're gonna call it the Papa John's Sculpture Garden, I expect there to be more pizza-oriented art. A delivery boy, box extended on his fingertips, while a fountain shoots from the bottle of soda in his other hand. Or at least a three-story tall hunk of concrete pizza crust rising out of a reflecting pool shaped like a garlic butter dipping cup. Expectations, Des Moines. You're such a tease.

lucy lediaev
12.29.11 @ 8:22p

Very nice. This is a much more accurate reflection of my years in Iowa than Bloom's article.

katherine (aka clevertitania)
1.2.12 @ 1:44p

I have to admit, I rag on the region heavily sometimes, but I also know damn well that Davenport is a pretty culturally hopping place (if your preferred kind of culture is art museum's, live music and microbrewing). It does irritate me when outsiders take my complaints of IA/IL and exaggerate them unnecessarily.

Thx for the clarifications, from a life long Quad Citian (even if I have wanted out since I was 6). The QC area - particularly on the Iowa side - also sports some decent food options. I am often amazed at just how many different kinds of Asian food you can get here.

And you want to talk about a people who understand being identified with one tiny part of state, try Illinoisans. I get job emails all the time from Chicago, which is only a 4 hour commute with traffic.

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