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Q & A: Iowa State Fair food superintendent Karen McKilligan discusses 2019 food competition

Contests vary from pies, cakes to cheese curds, Templeton Rye

Cakes await judging in the Elwell Family Food Center on Thursday, the opening day of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Cakes await judging in the Elwell Family Food Center on Thursday, the opening day of the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — After moving to Iowa about 20 years ago, Karen McKilligan found herself increasingly spending time in the food competition area of the Iowa State Fair. By 2010, she decided to start volunteering to help with the competitions while learning from food superintendent Arlette Hollister.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to be in here anyway — this is where I want to be — I can help out,’” McKilligan said. “So I went to talk to the superintendent at the time and volunteered for the next year. ... I’ve been in the building ever since."

Now McKilligan is in her third year as food superintendent and in her first year since Hollister died. McKilligan oversees the dozens of food competitions while managing a staff of 65 employees and volunteers, all from a wooden desk about 2 feet by 4 feet in the Elwell Family Food Center.

McKilligan discussed the evolving food competitions and how she is trying to involve more millennials with The Gazette before the start of the fair:

 

Q: For somebody that might not know what the food superintendent does, what exactly is your role at the Iowa State Fair?

 

A: “I supervise all the activities that go on during the fair involving food competition at the Elwell Family Food Center. We also have seminars in addition to food competition, and so I would be responsible for all the seminars, as well. That includes enlisting sponsors for the contests, developing the contests, assembling the premium books and getting those all ready to go in the winter so they can be released by April 1 and then enlisting the judges and workers that make the food building run during the summer.”

 

Q: What’s your favorite part of the food competitions?

 

A: “The buzz during the fair when all the exhibitors show up with their entries that they’re so proud of. All the stories behind the people. That’s definitely the most rewarding part.”

 

Q: Do you get to try any of the foods?

 

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A: “Occasionally, but not usually. We’re too busy, for one thing, and some of the exhibitors will take their entries back after they’re done being judged. The rest of them, if they leave them, we usually send them to the food shelter in Des Moines so that the people there can enjoy the fruits of the labor, so to speak.”

 

Q: How rewarding is it to be able to also be able to help out the local food shelter?

 

A: “That’s very cool, and that’s something we’ve done for a number of years. It came out of seeing too much wasting happening when people didn’t show up to pick their items up. For the food shelter, it’s become like Christmas for them.”

 

Q: The website has all sorts of categories ranging from cheese curds to Templeton Rye. How do you choose the categories?

 

A: “We have our standard categories that have been part of the fair as tradition like canning and candies and cookies and cakes. We have sponsors for those contests, but in addition to the traditional categories that you might think of for fair entries, sponsors can come up with new ideas, so that’s where something like cooking with Templeton Rye comes in. … But then sometimes it’s just a family’s quirk. … A lot of times it’s family memorials, maybe the mom’s favorite or specialty that the family wants to create a contest around.”

 

Q: How do you choose the judges?

 

A: “That is a coveted position, and we have a lot of people who step up and volunteer and say, ‘I want to be a judge at the Iowa State Fair.’ So we have a questionnaire that we have them complete to kind of assess their qualifications and interests and why they want to be a judge. … Some of our judges have just developed over the years, and then the sponsors also have the opportunity to designate judges for their contests. Some do, and some just have us select the judges for it. … We try to get people who have some expertise in the particular thing they’re judging.”

Q: Have you undergone any challenges trying to get the food competitions to appeal to millennials?

A: “That is a challenge, and that’s something we’ve been working on. I think there’s an intimidation factor that people think, ‘Oh, I don’t bake pies like my grandmother did. I haven’t developed an expertise in canning like somebody else in my family might have.’ But there are all types of contests that are available, so I do think that we’ve been challenged in getting that message out to millennials. But it is interesting when they come and participate to see how much fun they have. … I would like to get that message out to more millennials for sure.”

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Q: Do you see some of these unique categories — something like the cheese curds — as a way to get millennials interested?

A: “Yes. … There’s more healthy-oriented dishes, and I think there are more and more competitions that would be more appealing to millennials. So yes, we do have a challenge to reach them.”

 Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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