Church continues tradition of food stands at Iowa State Fair

Jerry Slagter talks with church members on Aug. 4 as they eat at the counter during the soft opening of the West Des Moines United Methodist Church's food stand at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP photo)

By COURTNEY CROWDER

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa — There’s a sign-up sheet in the basement of the West Des Moines Methodist Church that looks like the Container Store let loose on a poster board. It’s the king of sign-up sheets, and one glance at its methodically charted grids, tiny boxes, color codes and sticky notes denoting important updates tells part of the story behind the church’s beloved Iowa State Fair food stand.

For 11 days, the church needs 226 volunteers to staff two eight-hour shifts per day, plus a special two-person “cleanup crew” that works for two hours after the fair closes. Each of these volunteers will be pummeled with more numbers as the fair goes on: 350 egg sandwiches need to be ready by 6 a.m., each plate of biscuits and gravy gets two biscuits and, most importantly, every pie should yield exactly seven slices.

But figures tell only part of this storied stand’s tale; the other portion is less analytical and more spiritual. The West Des Moines Methodist Church is the last remaining Christian organization to host an eatery on the fairgrounds, making them the final vestige in a church food stand tradition that stretches back to the very first fair. Vowing to return every year they’re able, church members see staying open as a duty not just for themselves, but for the many religious stands that came before.

“It’s a State Fair staple that has become a tradition for our fairgoers,” fair CEO Gary Slater told The Des Moines Register . “They do things the old-fashioned way, and people know, when you go down to the West Des Moines Methodist stand, they are going to serve you right.”

Still, running the stand isn’t an easy task. Despite making tens of thousands of dollars each fair — the church’s largest fundraiser by far — the congregation relies on its aging members to work the stand. And with each year comes new unexpected adjustments: added labor regulations, tighter health codes, unavoidable stand upkeep and further volunteer headaches.

This year, more changes than usual seem to be afoot at the fair. The Midway has been transformed with a la carte vendors rather than a single amusement company. The fair for the first time staged a sort of Food Network extravaganza to unveil its new foods. Longtime fair volunteer Arlette Hollister won’t be the guru of the famous cooking competitions. And Jalapeno Pete’s, a music venue right near the Grandstand, got a face-lift costing more than $400,000 — about double the intended price tag.

Amid this upheaval, the WDM Methodist stand is classically quaint — a corner of the fair where the conversation flows as easily as the coffee. The stand doesn’t serve alcohol, so families wanting to avoid the rowdier side of the fair can find respite in the large seating area, which easily accommodates strollers and multi-generational households. Congregants pride themselves on good, simple food — eggs, bacon, loose meat sandwiches and pie — at low prices, said Larry Sample, 72, one of the co-chairs of the church’s State Fair committee.

“We take the time to sit and visit with people and make them feel welcome,” said Bob Meyers, 88, a church stand volunteer since 1960. “They enjoy it, and all of a sudden they get to talking and it feels almost like home, I’d say. Like a barbecue with family. And that’s what brings people back.”

In that vein, the church does its best to position its stand at the intersection of tradition and relevance. The volunteers tweak their menu a bit each year (diners can look forward to a new brand of sausage at the stand this year); they fix up their seats for maximum comfort; and they even get in on the “stuff on the stick” trend.

Saddle up to their stand and amid menus and napkins and table salt, you’ll find their speared offering: a prayer — on a tongue depressor.

The WDM Methodist stand started in 1949, when just about anyone could set up a food stall on the fairgrounds, said Millie Knee, daughter of one of the stand’s founders. Where today there are applications and forms and hoops to jump through, then there were two questions: Do you have food and can you serve it?

The stand was the brain child of one of the church’s women’s circles, and Irma Meyers, Knee’s mother, was approached to lead the charge soon after her husband died. In a memo describing the “Altruist Class” of people who worked the stand in those early years, Meyers wrote that taking on the responsibility of the fair stand was “good therapy.”