With her head and neck arched forward and her arms outstretched behind her, Diane Kleen steels herself for a curious test of perseverance.
As someone nearby shouts, "Go!" her tensed muscles relax. She teeters toward the table in front of her, and an instant later, her face plops into a plateful of pie. Chocolate cream pie. A grand and gooey tradition — the pie-eating contest — is underway at the Iowa State Fair.
A couple of minutes later, her plate is empty, and a smile is discernable even before Kleen uses a wad of paper towels to wipe smears of chocolate, cream and crust from her face.
"Every year, we come back for this," says the Iowa native, who now lives in Torrance. Each August, she and more than 1 million other visitors flock to the fairgrounds a few miles from the gold-domed state capitol for an 11-day celebration of all things agricultural. With regional variations, the scene is played out in all 50 states, offering young and old alike a fun and tasty escape.
State fairs began before the Civil War. Iowa's first — held in 1854 — had a budget of just more than $300. Widely regarded as one of the best, the Iowa expo was the setting for the 1945 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "State Fair." The corn dog was introduced here 95 years ago, befitting a state known both for its corn and its hogs.
With modest admission prices — advance-purchase tickets in Iowa are $7 for adults and $3 for kids ages 6 to 11 — nearly everyone can justify a trip to a nearby state fair. While the kids may have their eyes set on the midway, with its rides and carnival games (an additional charge), there are more than enough free activities to occupy two or three days.
For starters, consider all those old-fashioned contests: pie eating, nail driving, horseshoe pitching, marble shooting, hog calling and more. Participation is free, and even less-adventurous fairgoers — those who just want to watch — can't resist seeing a gigantic pink bubble of gum explode all over a contestant's face.
Several stages provide free concerts throughout the day. Some feature local talent; others boast entertainers that many visitors have actually heard of. (Free headliners next month in Des Moines include '60s pop stars the Family Stone and Davy Jones of the Monkees.)
But the backbone of any true-to-its-roots fair is livestock. Inside sprawling pavilions, even city slickers delight at the interactions of farm kids and their animals: grooming a favorite rabbit, taking a cantankerous porker for a walk, or struggling to bathe a 1,300-pound bull.
"He's going to be a big one when he grows up," a visitor wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes cap jokes while standing outside the pen of a grand champion steer.
Of course, the boys and girls who belong to 4-H clubs realize, sometimes tearfully, that their prized possessions may soon end up on someone's dinner plate — or even at one of the scads of food stands that are almost always in sight.
A top seller is the pork chop on a stick. A seasoned and grilled treat, the chops attest to Iowa's No. 1 ranking among pork producers. A state with just 3 million residents, it raises 30 million pigs each year.
"They're just so tender," Donnette Paxton of Charles City, Iowa, says as she brandishes the unique fast food. "I wish I could learn how to make a pork chop like this."
This year's Iowa State Fair runs Aug. 12-22 in Des Moines. Info: http://www.iowastatefair.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times