Graphic: Elena Scotti
Every four years, candidates from both parties descend upon Iowa to make the case that they care about the state and its residents before promptly departing after the caucuses are over, many never to return again. It’s the “political equivalent of the Olympics,” Shawn Sebastian, a local activist, told me, an exhausting and overblown spectacle in which money pours in yet ultimately leaves the state’s political infrastructure worse off than before.
For months, candidates pander to the state’s voters, a process that often involves devouring most of Iowa’s culinary delights. On Tuesday, the day after the caucuses, with the results for the Democrats still unknown due to a perfect, and entirely predictable, storm of everyday human incompetence mixed with spectacular technological failure, I decided to eat as much of the food that Iowa is known for as humanly possible, because why not? I already felt dead inside! “Your job is to zero in on the sweet spot between uncomfortably full and actual death,” my editor and chaos agent Alexis Sobel-Fitts told me. I picked three iconic Des Moines establishments, and accepted the challenge.
My first stop was the iconic Waveland Cafe, one of those tchotchke-filled diners that screams “authenticity” and has for years been one of the many stops for candidates as they troop through the state. Signatures of politicians and presidential candidates, who have proved how relatable they are, one sausage wrapped in a pancake at a time, adorn one wall. I spied Steve Bullock’s name at the top. (RIP, Steve.) The actor Jason Momoa, who grew up in Norwalk, Iowa, is also a fan, to the point where a dish is named in his honor.
I contemplated ordering the “Momoa,” which is a full order of hash browns that are then topped with biscuits and gravy, accompanied by two eggs and what I imagine is an entire hog’s worth of bacon. I asked the waiter behind the counter, a very kind middle-aged blonde woman in a Kansas City Chiefs jersey, how much food that is, and she showed me with her hands. It is, as you can imagine, quite a lot of food, so I decided to order what was essentially a “half Momoa,” which I felt was realistically ambitious.
I’ve waited on one woman for 22 years, and she’s never said a cuss word until today.
I asked my waiter if she caucused. (No.) What was the mood this morning at the cafe? “A lot of people said they’re never gonna do it again,” she told me. She added, “I’ve waited on one woman for 22 years, and she’s never said a cuss word until today.”
The food arrived on two plates, and I dug in. So far, so good—the hashbrowns were perfectly fried, the bacon the correct point between chewy and crisp, the biscuits soft, and the gravy rich.
A young woman sat down on the stool next to me and downed a glass of water like it was a shot of whiskey. I understood—we were all feeling a sort of caucus-related hangover. She told me her name was Jenna, that she was 25 and a carpenter, and that she was a Pete Buttigieg fan. What did she think of all of the election night fuckery?
“I think it’s a load of shit. I think they have the results, and they just, I don’t know. It’s Iowa,” she said.
Jenna was reading an article sent to her by some friends in an effort to convince her to not support Buttigieg while she ate, which warned darkly of how “national security mandarins” had “groomed” Buttigieg to run for president. “Their only caveat about him is that he’s apparently a CIA plant,” she said. She saw the look on my face. “I know, I know,” she said, laughing. Still, she went back to reading the article, and I went back to eating. I could only finish half of a half of a Momoa, and left feeling pleasantly full.
I made my way to Smitty’s Tenderloin Shop, feeling good, feeling confident. Smitty’s is a somewhat shabby single-story brick restaurant close to the Des Moines airport and, incidentally, the offices of the Iowa Democratic Party. It’s famous for its king loin sandwich—a breaded pork tenderloin nestled inside a hamburger bun, and like Waverly Cafe, known as a hangout for reporters and candidates every four years. The caucuses have lately been good for business at Smitty’s. This year, Bill de Blasio had stopped by; on Monday, a CNN crew had dropped in.
According to the menu, I could choose between a “large” or a “small” version of the sandwich, and in the spirit of this exercise, went with the “large.”
It was much bigger than I expected, with the pork chop easily measuring twice the size of the bun:
The waiter, again a very kind middle-aged blonde woman, this time named Jo Jo, must have sensed my confusion about how to eat this “sandwich.” “Do you want a knife and fork?” she asked me. I declined, determined to eat this breaded monstrosity with my hands though unsure exactly how to eat it. The sandwich itself is an ode to tradition, Jo Jo told me. “His grandpa started it with the bun not fitting it,” she said, referring to the current owner of Smitty’s, and it had stayed that way for decades.
I told her I was in town for the caucuses. Jo Jo had learned of the debacle of Monday night’s results, or lack thereof, from the Today show that morning. “How embarrassing for Iowa. How stupid,” Jo Jo said. “But I don’t know. They don’t even know yet, right?”
Sitting next to me was a man named Don, a caucus goer. “Supposedly, this system they had here was to streamline everything,” he said with a laugh. “Back to the drawing board.” He wasn’t a fan of the caucus process, which he felt was too unwieldy. “It’s goofy,” he said.
By now, I had made my way through one-third of the king loin, which I imagine I would have enjoyed if I hadn’t already eaten one-fourth of a Momoa just two hours earlier. Was it perfectly adequate, if cartoonishly large? Yes. Was it transcendent? No. I was starting to feel queasy. I finished half of the king loin, uncertain if I could go on. So much blood was now pumping to my stomach and my intestines that I began to feel dizzy.
The entire week I had been in Des Moines, I had heard of something called a “taco pizza,” a local delicacy created, so the story goes, in 1974 by a white man who went by the name by the name of Happy Joe Whitty. My last stop would be at a Casey’s, a general store and gas station chain known for its taco pizzas.
“Can I have a small taco pizza,” I said weakly when I entered. Immediately upon uttering those words, I had to squat, a wave of nausea hitting me at the mere thought of putting anything more into my mouth.
As I waited for my taco pizza from my position perched inches off of the ground, I noticed a customer was having issues with the credit card reader. “That’s what happens when you rely on technology,” the cashier quipped. Ouch. Not today!!!
My pizza arrived, and I took a full look. As far as I could tell, it was a standard sausage pizza with lettuce, tomatoes, and Doritos on top, plus some “taco sauce” in packets, akin to what I imagine would be the result if a Taco Bell had a baby with a Pizza Hut.
I took one bite, and felt I could go no further. I was determined to eat at least once slice. Each bite was somehow both bland and too salty. As I contemplated the remaining pizza, my body and my brain finally screamed, “NOOOOOOOOOO.”
Iowa had defeated me. I had played myself, much like the Iowa Democratic Party. Luckily for me, this year’s spectacle may be its last.