The 'Super Bowl' of eggs: How Iowa farmers give away 170,000 eggs on a stick at State Fair
When working the egg on a stick stand at the Iowa State Fair, a good sense of humor and a quick retort are nearly as important as both the egg and the stick.
How long does it take to boil the eggs? Oh, man, I was up all night.When did you peel all these eggs? I’ve been here since midnight.These are egg-cellent! Eggs-actly!
“So which came first?” asks one fairgoer, smirking as she picks up a stick.
“The egg, obviously!” Terry Sawatzky replies swiftly.
Listen, Terry tells me, you’re gonna get “Which came first?” a lot.
“The other thing people say is, ‘Could I have one for my aunt and another for my uncle?’” volunteer Georgia Hansen says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, honey, you can have three eggs all on your own. We encourage it!’”
“I love all the little kids and how excited they are to take their pictures with the egg,” she adds. “It’s so cute.”
Eggs-tra effort needed from farm families, processors
These friends ― monthly musical bingo teammates at Ankeny’s Yankee Clipper ― love volunteering almost as much as they love the State Fair, so finding a way to combine the two made sense. And the Iowa Egg Council has a pretty good pitch, they say: free admission, free parking and free eggs.
The bingo ladies are just eight of the more than 250 volunteers who will hand out at least 170,000 free eggs over the course of the fair’s 11 days. On par with the butter cow and their fellow agriculture-rooted be-sticked item, the pork chop, the egg on a stick is one of the fair’s preeminent traditions ― and one of the last free food items on the grounds.
“This is our Super Bowl,” says Kevin Stiles, executive director of the Egg Council, who also pulls shifts at the stand. “For us, it is the best way to remind people that, doggone it, this is a great product that tastes great and is nutritious.”
For the Iowa Egg Council, being at the Iowa State Fair ― the largest consumer event in the state ― is a promotional bonanza. Considering Iowa is the nation’s top egg producing state, Stiles is keen to showcase both the industry’s economic impact ― $2 billion in sales and 8,000 jobs in Iowa ― as well as its tight-knit commodity community.
The council can give away that many free eggs only because local farmers and processors donate their goods and services, Stiles says. All the eggs used at the State Fair come from Versova, a conglomerate that has Iowa farms, and their processing was provided by Michael Foods. The refrigerator off-site, where the council keeps nearly 2,000 boxes of eggs nice and chilly, was donated by Oskaloosa Foods and sits on land a feed company lets them use.
And — Ankeny’s crew of musical bingo teammates aside — the small army of volunteers needed to run the stand are mostly from agriculture-connected families.
“In the egg industry, it’s a family,” Stiles says. “Nearly every egg farmer in the state is going to spend some time here in the booth, and some of them will bring as many as 20 people with them.”
“It makes you feel good about what we're doing in our industry, that we continue to step up.”
Egg-cellent for kids: Chef promotes benefit of breakfast
Located in the center of the agriculture building, the egg on a stick kiosk has been operating for more than 20 years. The stand used to be nestled amongst other commodity groups’ stalls — most of which were also giving away free product samples — but those organizations have moved their fair operations to other locales on the grounds.
Like so much at the State Fair, egg on a stick is a deeply held tradition for many Iowans. When the fair had to cancel in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Egg Council held a drive-thru event so brokenhearted fanatics could still get a taste of their favorite summer custom.
“Egg on a stick has become one of those staples of the fair,” Stiles says.
But the council has also recently branched out culinarily with the Cluck 'n' Coop, a concession stand that seeks to elevate the egg. Its more haute-cuisine menu includes chicken and egg salad on fry bread; the Korean egg dog, a play on the popular Asian street food; and deep-fried hard-boiled eggs (Hey, this is still the Iowa State Fair, and a crazy fried option is mandatory).
“The chef’s hat ― the toque ― has 101 pleats, which stands for 101 different ways to cook an egg,” says Joe Weisz, head chef and operator of the Cluck 'n' Coop. “So think about how creative you can get with something that seems so basic like an egg.”
A classically trained French and Italian chef who has crisscrossed kitchens across the world, Weisz spent at least five months planning for the fair. He doesn’t get skittish for much in the culinary world, but, as an Iowa native, cooking at the Iowa State Fair has always been on his bucket list.
“I did have some nerves coming in and thinking are we going to serve 100,000 people, 10,000, you just don’t know,” he says. “You pretty much have to set up a restaurant on-site, which you can imagine all the prep that goes into setting up a restaurant.”
In addition to the epicurean challenge of the fair, Weisz, who spends most of his time as Ankeny Community School District’s nutrition director, hopes to use this platform to promote the importance of breakfast. To learn best, he says, kids need food in the morning and “eggs are a good way to deliver that fuel.”
Volunteers develop eggs-traordinary teamwork
Back in the egg on a stick stall, Sawatzky and fellow volunteer Tami Rupiper perform their egg on a stick duties with the grace of a professional pas de deux.
Tami is the stocker, taking a new bag of eggs out of the cooler and placing each individually into mini-muffin pans. And Terry is the stabber — popsicle sticks go deftly into eggs with the flick of a wrist.
They’re moving fast and sprinkling puns into conversation as plentifully as fairgoers douse eggs with savory seasoning. But they’ve had a lot of practice, Sawatzky admits. They slung Bloody Marys for RAGBRAI the other week, so getting the hang of eggs came real (over) easy.
“I guess we're breakfast eggs-perts!” Sawatzky says.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Her State Fair food must-get is the ice cream brick known as the Bauder's Peppermint Bar. Don't be ashamed to have seconds! Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.