Iowa's Most Oddball (Edible) Political Rites of Passage

PHOTO: Mitt Romney flips pork chops at the Iowa State Fair, Aug. 2011.
Michael Falcone/ABC

As the drumroll for the 2016 presidential race begins, would-be candidates in both parties have already begun trekking to early voting states.

Iowa has received the most attention, by far. And to win the caucuses in the Hawkeye State, kissing babies and shaking hands is hardly enough.

To be considered a legitimate contender in the state that traditionally kicks off the presidential nominating process, candidates need to do a lot more than just campaign -- they have to run Iowa's culinary gauntlet, grubbing on state delicacies that range from fried pork chops on a stick to a pizza buffet to ice cream sundaes.

And all the eating, snacking and chewing often leads to presidential hopefuls take out a couple of notches on their belts.

Here's a look at the seven most oddball -- edible -- political rites of passage in the all-important state of Iowa:

PHOTO: Rick Perry eats a pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair, Aug. 2011.
Michael Falcone/ABC
The Iowa State Fair

A state institution since 1854, the Iowa State Fair, now held in Des Moines, attracts over one million visitors a year.

Potential presidential candidates can often be found at the fair's "Pork Tent," flipping chops and patties courtesy of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

A number of recent presidential hopefuls have donned the association's "Pork: Be Inspired" apron and shown off their sometimes questionable grilling skills, including Mitt Romney (who famously dropped a chop), Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and, in 2007, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Along with the fair's famous 102-year-old Butter Cow (yes, it's literally a cow made of butter), a number of politicians always dig into the fair's numerous offerings of fried treats on a stick. With choices including corn dogs, pickles and Snickers bars -- even fried butter -- it's often not a pretty sight.

Politicians' stomachs finally get a break at the fair's "soap box," which was a major draw in 2011 for a number of stumping GOP candidates, including Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Gingrich, Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Sarah Palin also made an appearance.

Rubber-Chicken Dinners

Rubber-chicken dinners have become so infamous on the political campaign trail that they scored their own definition on Dictionary.com: "a monotonous round of dinners, often featuring chicken, that a lecturer or political candidate is obliged to attend."

Iowa has its fair share of these political meals.

Republicans have their Reagan dinner, and for Democrats, it's the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a.k.a. the "JJ" dinner.

In 2007, both Obama and Clinton gave speeches at the JJ dinner, and the Reagan dinner in 2011 reads like a GOP primary debate card, with Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, making speeches one right after the other in 10-minute intervals.

Already hitting the rubber-chicken circuit in Iowa this year was Sen. Rand Paul, Santorum and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. It's the appearance of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at this week's Reagan dinner that's getting the real attention as a curtain-raiser for a 2016 campaign.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum looks on during pheasant hunting in Adel, Iowa, Dec. 26, 2011.
Joshua Lott/Reuters
Steve King's Pheasant Hunt

Adding fuel to the 2016 speculation is Cruz's appearance at Republican Rep. Steve King's annual pheasant hunt this year. It's an opportunity for aspiring presidential contenders to impress the competition by killing their dinner.

The hunt, which kicks off today, comes a day after Cruz's scheduled speech at the Iowa Republican Party's annual fundraiser in Des Moines.

A number of GOP candidates have donned the bright orange hunting vest in hopes of securing King's endorsement, including Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Texas Gov. Rick Perry during the 2012 election cycle.

For $500, anyone can participate in the hunt, as well as snap a photo with King and Cruz.

PHOTO: Vice President Joe Biden, left, speaks to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin at Harkins annual fundraising steak fry dinner, Sept. 15, 2013, in Indianola, Iowa.
Steve Pope/Getty Images
Harkin Steak Fry

Vice President Joe Biden started rumblings of a 2016 run after appearing at the annual Harkin Steak Fry in September.

Now in its 36th year, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, started his steak fry in 1972 and used it to publicly announce his campaign for the presidency in 1991. Now it's become a tradition in Democratic Party circles.

The Steak Fry has attracted a number of prominent Democrats. In 2007, six of the party's hopefuls were in attendance, including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, former Sens. John Edwards and Chris Dodd, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

The meaty event has had fewer marquee names since Obama secured the presidency, with past headliners including Obama campaign manager David Plouffe and senior advisor David Axelrod.

But with this year's appearances by Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the fry is definitely getting hot again.

Rick Santorum poses in front of a Pizza Ranch franchise in Le Mars, Iowa, Aug. 2013.
Michael Falcone/ABC
Pizza Ranch

One of the biggest -- and most fattening -- political hot spots in Iowa is a chain of pizza restaurants with an Old West theme.

Pizza Ranch, a Christian-based company started in 1981 in Hull, Iowa, has more than 160 locations and is the largest regional pizza franchise, featuring an all-you-can-eat buffet for less than $10 and a company mission "to glorify God by positively impacting the world we live in."

The chain allows political events to be held in its restaurant for free, drawing a number of conservative politicians, including, during the last election cycle, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. Santorum was such a frequent guest that a Pizza Ranch store in Boone, Iowa, briefly named a salad after him.

Santorum even mentioned Pizza Ranch in his belated victory speech after winning the Iowa state caucus in 2012.

"This has been an incredible journey, 99 counties, 381 town hall meetings ... 36 Pizza Ranches," the former Pennsylvania senator told his supporters, who interrupted him with laughter. "You'll notice I'm not buttoning my coat for a reason."

Blue Bunny Ice Cream

Politicians around the country seem to have a particular sweet tooth for ice cream -- and Iowa is no exception. There's even a blog devoted to Joe Biden consuming the frozen delicacy in numerous locations.

So it should be no surprise that Blue Bunny Ice Cream, a parlor in Le Mars, Iowa, has become a hot spot for presidential hopefuls.

Rick Santorum, who might as well be an Iowa local with the number of visits he clocks in, recently ordered a double scoop chocolate chip and chocolate caramel cashew. Other potential candidates that have come to satisfy their craving include Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, John McCain and John Edwards.

Terry Brandstad's Birthday Party

Spiking politicians' blood sugar even more is the birthday cake at Iowa Gov. Brandstad's annual birthday bash, held every November in Altoona at an amusement park aptly called "Adventureland."

The celebration features live music, dinner and a keynote guest. And, of course, slices of frosted cake.

Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., attended, and this year, former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan will help Brandstad ring in the big 6-7.

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