Fried Twinkies, please.
That was my request when I called dibs on critiquing the Des Moines Register's feature on a church's food stand at the Iowa State Fair.
You won't believe how the boss man — tmatt — responded. By saying this: "I am totally a fried pickle chips guy, with ranch dressing."
Repeat after me: Yuck!
But I do agree with tmatt on this: I'd like some fried Oreos to go along with my fried Twinkies. OK? (And in response to my GetReligion colleague Mark Kellner, who asked if my life insurance is paid up, "Boo! And yes, it is.")
Now, about that story: It's delightful — chock-full of nostalgia and revealing details.
I should warn you that there's no mention of fried Twinkies (I was disappointed, too), but the United Methodist Church featured does serve eggs, bacon, loose meat sandwiches and pie. Lots of pie. (Can anybody tell that I'm writing on an empty stomach?)
Let's start at the top:
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 “clean-up 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 said of the stand. “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."
That's good stuff.
And there's more of it if you keep reading.
Close to the end, the writer — Courtney Crowder of the USA Today Network's religion team — provides some excellent details that help readers understand the church's mission and motivation (although I wouldn't have complained about a bit more information along those lines):
The profit is hard for WDM Methodist to think of giving up, too, Sample said. The money the church makes, which adds up to tens of thousands a year, is used for mission work. Whether through local improvements, community engagement or sending youth groups and adult missionaries around the world, every cent made at the fair goes back to the church’s calling, said Ken Ferguson, the other co-chair.
But outside of the financial gains, many who work at the stand see it as a time for fellowship, said church member Tom Ackerman. When you work eight hours at the stand with other church members, you create a special kind of bond, one full of those “remember when” stories.
On some level, Ackerman said, the stand is also a public service, a place for “good works.” It’s a comfortable, calm locale for people to rest, which is enough, but if those people also want to talk about the church, that’s so much the better.
“We’ve been out there as long as a lot of people have been alive,” Ackerman said. “I can’t tell you how many people will tell volunteers about how they used to come here with their mom and dad when they were little and how much that connection to the past means to them.”
In a couple of places, I wish the Register had offered just a tad more insight. In one, the paper noted that the Methodists don't serve alcohol at their stand (unlike other fair stands). I wonder if there might be a holy ghost there.
In another place, the writer shared this fascinating detail:
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.
I want to know exactly what kind of prayer fits on a tongue depressor. I would have welcomed more explanation there.
But overall, I loved this story — almost as much as I'd love some fried Twinkies. Please!?