Riding a bicycle across an entire state is only one aspect of RAGBRAI. As you can see by last year’s logo, food figures very prominently into the tour. More specifically, pie figures very prominently. The official cycling jersey also lists many kinds of pie you might hope to encounter, and Kelly’s Pies worked hard to provide some delicious fare. More on pies a little later.
We started our culinary experience the day before the ride at the 6th Annual Mid-America Ribfest in Council Bluffs, a separate but conveniently simultaneous event. Growing up outside Chicago, I had exposure to many genres of food, and spareribs and pork chops were certainly part of my mother’s arsenal of supper offerings. This place was an entirely different world. It may look like a “most banners” competition, but pork products were first and foremost. I am partial to pulled pork, and I was not disappointed.
This was my first RAGBRAI, so I relied on the veterans on our team to help me with choosing where to eat along each day’s route. To be honest, as long as you have cash, and depending on how hungry you are, anywhere you stop is a good place to eat: the vendors who follow the tour each day, to the churches, schools, and local organizations of each town we pass through. Come to think of it, every time you stop is a good time to eat. Here I present the more memorable food stops.
The regular mobile vendors each had a special appeal, and I was most impressed with Pancake Man’s production line and delivery method. Farm Boys wrapped a nice breakfast burrito which, paired with a bowl of oatmeal, provided more than enough energy (for me, at least) to make it to lunch. Not that there wasn’t a town every ten or fifteen miles, and someone selling food at several places in between. Lunch was the next big meal you ate if you already had breakfast, or if it was noon, or whenever. Mr. Pork Chop is more than a food vendor, it is an experience. Riders are enticed with cries of “Pooooooorrrrrrk Choooooooop!” and there is always a line. A cluster of barbecue grills produces a lingering haze as riders enjoy inch-thick chops served up in a paper towel. Not elegant, but all the hungry, sweaty, Lycra-clad cyclists sing nothing but praises. The school bus decked out like a huge automotive pig is worth a stop in itself.
At the suggestion of our team captain, I stopped at Pastafari one day and shelled out $14 for penne arrabbiata pasta with rosemary-crusted salmon. Pricey (for RAGBRAI) but delicious. The vibe was kind of upper-crusty laid back, and a little contrived. I must admit, I like their logo. Kelly’s Pies falls decidedly in the dessert category, but that didn’t stop us from grabbing some wherever we encountered her stand. I think one pie had seven different berries in it, but all the pies were great.
Our team developed a routine, at least for the seven days we trekked across Iowa, of visiting one particular vendor each morning. This vendor played an important role in maintaining our good spirits throughout the week, and was definitely a high point of each day. The mission of the Little Farm Fair Trade Coffee folks is to spread the good word about organically grown coffee, family farms, and Fair Trade. We looked forward each morning to delicious all-you-can-drink coffee (for $3.50), intelligent conversation, and live music from a couple who were on their way from Alaska to somewhere South-of-the-border (on bicycles, of course). Although the proprietors hail from Missouri, they had become a recent favorite of RAGBRAI participants. Political shenanigans, however, cast a little bad karma when Little Farm was prevented from selling coffee in Montgomery County because they had not purchased a permit, required by a new ordinance effective the day before through the day after (hmmm…). They let people “steal” what coffee had already been brewed before the sheriff put the kibosh on the operation. We were lucky to get away with some coffee before it ran out and just paid the next day. It all boils down to protecting Iowa-based vendors and organizations from profit-sucking out-of-state sellers. Never mind that Little Farm probably at best broke even after the week. They care more about spreading the word about Fair Trade, anyway. Sadly, Little Farm has opted out of this year’s RAGBRAI due to suspicions of even more ordinance shenanigans and favoritism. We will need a new morning caffeine dealer this year.
Now, about those local folks- RAGBRAI wants as much of the the profits from selling goods and services as possible to first go back into the state of Iowa, then the counties, and finally the communities participating in the ride. We were often at the mercy of whoever was next up the road when hunger struck, and if it wasn’t a school or church offering fruit or some pork on a stick, it was an Iowa-based company hawking their product. In Henderson, the fire department provided sandwiches and chips, and we all supped at rows of folding tables in the garage, out of the blazing sun. A Stanton bar opened its doors early in the morning, so we could enjoy bloody Marys and observe traditional Swedish folk dancing by local youth. For the best lamb-burger I ever had (okay, the first lamb-burger I ever had), I stopped by the Madison County Sheep Producers food stand when we paused for lunch in Truro.
A light rain fell as we arrived in Greenfield, but that did not deter us from dining on gyros on the steps of City Hall in the public square. Following my ride around Rathbun Lake, an optional loop which made the day a century ride, I stopped off at the Landing (a.k.a. Krazy Connie’s) for a pulled-pork burrito and some real beer. Now, I hate to go back to the financial side of RAGBRAI and related political hoo-hah, but there is one aspect I was not particularly fond of: corporate sponsorship. More specifically, sponsorship by the makers of weak American mass-produced “beer”. I was a good sport, and drank Miller with the masses, and did not refuse an Old Style if offered at our charter group’s après ride tent. I was privately overjoyed to hear from a fellow loop-rider that there was good beer up the road following the loop, and I found it at Krazy Connie’s. There I enjoyed both a Goose Island Nut Brown Ale, and a Beach Bum Blonde Ale. Yes, Beach Bum is from Anheuser-Busch, and was certainly the lesser of the two. Still, if given a choice, I would choose it over a Bud every time. But, I digress.
We often joked about the prospects of eating “<insert any meat product here>-on-a-stick,” and we found a school in Pekin serving pigs in a blanket on a stick, which combines one of my favorite breakfasts with, well, a stick. Entertainment was provided by a local high school jazz band. On our last morning, VFW Post 7641 filled our tummies with more pancakes and sausage. Since a big part of RAGBRAI is promoting Iowa and supporting the small towns therein, I was happy to “eat local”.
RAGBRAI XXXVIII now looms three days away, and I am thinking of how I want to handle the whole eating thing this time. Last year, we sought out the popular vendors who served up the best whatever (according to those who had previous RAGBRAIs under their saddle), but I want to try to hit the community organizations where possible for meals, especially if I can get breakfast sooner than fifteen or twenty miles out (I could use a good coffee before we even start, for that matter). A Clif bar only takes me so far.
To those teammates who just don’t eat breakfast (shame on you): you go on ahead- I’ll catch up!
Next Installment: Reflections on RAGBRAI XXXVIII