In the Corn Kingdom: Des Moines

Frank Lloyd Wright, upon seeing Arizona for the first time, commented that the saguaro, the tall cacti found among the scrub and desert, was the “natural skyscraper’ of the Southwest. He refused to build any higher than the noble cactus. Fifty years before that, Frank got his start in the Prairies of the United States, creating an architecture that complemented the flat, fertile vistas of the Midwest. When I think of the vast American breadbasket, I expected to find in Iowa nothing much taller than the cornstalks, perhaps the skyscrapers of the prairie. That ideal was put to rest, upon discovering the Des Moines, the capital of the corn kingdom of Iowa, was far more than granaries and pastures.

The Monks

Surprisingly, Des Moines is hilly, not steep or varied, but rather a rolling heath in the Des Moines River valley. I suppose I was expecting a great flat expanse. And nestled in that valley, Des Moines has the feel of a real city, with several buildings over 25 stories in the downtown core. Looking westward from the steps of the Iowa State Capitol, atop a modest hill overlooking the Des Moines skyline—yes, skyline, with the setting sun over the waves of grain, you get a sense of the tremendous pride Iowans have for their agrestic American Alsace.

Des Moines has of course, a decidedly un-English name. And like many Midwestern words, it is unclear how the river for which the city is named got its handle. One story recounts that the French explorers named the river for the monks who settled nearby—La Riviere des Moines. Others suggest the name was taken from a local tribe, called Moingona by settlers (but translating into horrible slang, according to scholars.)

When it comes to the locals today, Midwestern nice continues to expand westward. Having recently put myself through a self-imposed French diction boot camp (for mastery of singing in French as well as learning, finally, how to pronounce “Café au Lait), I couldn’t help but cringe when hearing the locals say:

“Welcome to DEE MOYN.”

“Certainly, you mean “Dey MWAHney?”

Really Big Ag

For outsiders, the emphasis on farming and corn in particular in Iowa seems cliché, or at least, the perpetuation of a stereotype. Not so. At a meeting as far removed from the campaign trail as possible, I heard both the governor and lieutenant governor weave corn and agriculture into their speeches—required homages and deference in a land where one out of every five ears of corn in America is grown in Iowa, one out of every 9 eggs and one of every three hogs.

It is for that reason that major companies like Archer-Daniels Midland, Monsanto, Cargill and Quaker Oats are among the Big Ag corporations operating in Iowa. And it is also why, once a year, Des Moines is on the international stage as the home of the “World Food Prize.” The Prize is regarded as the “Nobel Prize of Food,” founded by Norman Borlaug in 1986. Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his research and contributions to the “Green Revolution”—the increase of agricultural production through cross-breeding, fertilizing and hybridizing plants like corn and wheat for faster growth. Borlaug’s work specifically in wheat production is credited with saving nearly a billion people in the Indian subcontinent in the 1970’s. His legacy lives on in the Food Prize, even as the occasional protestors gather in Des Moines to rage against genetically modified organisms, pesticide producers and other first-world problems in a world where, as Borlaug put it “they have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger.”

Where else should a World Food Prize be in the world really? Chicago is too cosmopolitan, too much of a regional hegemon. This isn’t a culinary award, this is about agriculture at its core—the feeding a lot of people. Agriculture is, after all, how we evolved from hunter-gatherers into suburbanites. Food is, at this fundamental level, about survival. And for a planet that continues to add billions of mouths at an exponential rate—food here is about quantity.

More than Meat and Potatoes

This is not to say that Des Moines is bereft of a local food scene, where the locals are crafting the raw material of the harvest into something delectable. Court Avenue seems to have the happy hour pulse of Des Moines down, with local pubs as varied as Wasabi Tao and the Whiskey Dixx. For me, I was looking for some remnants of the old German populations that settled in Des Moines, and that took me to the Hessen Haus, an old train depot station repurposed into a beer hall. With just the right amount of grit and age, some may sneer at the place as a dive. But the charm of the building is in the old wood and brick of the depot, as well as the excellent German pils on tap and decent Jaegerschnitzel.

As for the new world, you will not want for modern, as fusion is alive and well. One place, Fong’s Pizza, is as fusion as you can get, with Crab Rangoon Pizza or Kung Pao Chicken on a thin crust. Opened in 2009 in the location of the oldest Chinese restaurant in Des Moines, the pizzeria has kept the décor and parts of the menu in a fit of creativity usually reserved for the Food Section of the New York Times.

Children of the Corn

My visit coincided with the return of the Kansas City Royals to the World Series. Forgetting that I was in a state without a major league sports team, the sentiments in Des Moines seem split between the Cubs and the Royals. I had never seen a Royals fan in the wild, not at least since the days of Bo Jackson or George Brett. Des Moines and baseball are things of legend. A very young Ronald Reagan called Cubs games on the local radio. And Bill Bryson, famous travelogue and favorite son, recalls in his memoir:

“My dad was a sportswriter for The Des Moines Register, which in those days was one of the country’s best papers, and often took me along on trips through the Midwest. Sometimes these were car trips to places like Sioux City or Burlington, but at least once a summer we boarded a big silver plane—a huge event in those days—and lumbered through the summery skies, up among the fleecy clouds, to St. Louis or Chicago or Detroit to take in a home stand. It was a kind of working holiday for my dad.

Baseball, like everything else, was part of a simpler world in those days, and I was allowed to go with him into the clubhouse and dugout and onto the field before games. I have had my hair tousled by Stan Musial. I have handed Willie Mays a ball that had skittered past him as he played catch. I have lent my binoculars to Harvey Kuenn possibly it was Billy Hoeft) so that he could scope some busty blonde in the upper deck. Once on a hot July afternoon I sat in a nearly airless clubhouse under the left-field grandstand at Wrigley Field beside Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ great shortstop, as he autographed boxes of new white baseballs (which are, incidentally, one of the most pleasurably aromatic things on earth, and worth spending time around anyway). Unbidden, I took it upon myself to sit beside him and pass him each new ball. This slowed the process considerably, but he gave a little smile each time and said thank you as if I had done him quite a favor. He was the nicest human being I have ever met. It was like being friends with God.”

–Bill Bryson, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”

Bryson was an early inspiration for this blog, especially in his craft and pen, an exceptional travel writer with a wit that was forged in Des Moines. The thing about flyover country is, that so many voices of Americana learned to speak here, in a Midwestern dialect. Mark Twain (Missouri). Carl Sandberg (Illinois). Ray Bradbury (Illinois), Toni Morrison (Ohio), Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota), Kurt Vonnegut (Indiana), Sherwood Anderson (Ohio), Jean Shepard (Chicago), Bob Dylan (Minnesota) among others. And so did Bill Bryson. There is something to this agrestic lifestyle—the right balance of sturm und drang (albeit, too much sturm in der Sommer). Having recently re-read Bryson’s memoir of his childhood, I felt a particular impulse to explore his old environs, around Drake University, and the streets on his newspaper route. But in my re-reading, Bryson himself catalogs all of the places of his youth now gone, those formative parks and theaters, corner groceries and even newspapers, are no more. In another way, even Des Moines cannot claim Bryson anymore, his Midwestern dialect burnished by 40 years of living in rural England, sounds exotic. But his tone, in his writing, captures the certain levity that I experienced in meeting Iowans at the pub, in conference rooms and on the street. In a recent speech at his alma mater, Bryson offered a valedictory, through a well-worn device, “you know you are from Iowa if:

“You can find nice things to say about Herbert Hoover.”

“No matter how small the plate is at the salad bar you can get 400 items on it.”

“You don’t think there’s anything funny about the name ‘Des Moines International Airport.’”

“You don’t freak out when you hear: ‘Tornado’s coming.’”

“You are out of state and meet someone else from Iowa and you both get really excited.”

Of the last wisecrack, I have a first hand account. When in grad school, a fellow student hailed from the Cornhusker Nation—the University of Iowa. When she introduced herself at a conference reception in a major coastal city, she shyly, almost apologetically offered that she was from “I-uh-wa.” A government official from Ames piped up from the back of the room, giddily,

“Don’t say it like that! You are from IOWA! And say where too!”

Photo Credits

Iowa Corn:

Skyline: Wikipedia

Borlaug Medal:

Fong’s: Dan V Food Blog:

Hessen Haus: