Everything You Need to Know About the Iowa Steak Fry

Hillary Clinton returning to Iowa for first time since losing Iowa caucuses.

September 14, 2014, 7:09 AM
PHOTO: Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., flips steaks during Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraising steak fry, Sept. 16, 2007, in Indianola, Iowa.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., flips steaks during Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraising steak fry, Sept. 16, 2007, in Indianola, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

— -- When Hillary Clinton touches down in Iowa this weekend, it will be the first time she has stepped foot on the state's soil since she lost the Iowa caucuses during her presidential primary campaign Jan. 3, 2008.

Clinton has notably stayed clear of Iowa since her defeat to then-Sen. Barack Obama that night, a moment she describes as "excruciating" in her new memoir, "Hard Choices."

But, now, nearly 2,500 days later, Clinton is making her grand return to the Hawkeye state to headline, along with husband Bill Clinton, Sen. Tom Harkin's 37th annual and final Steak Fry.

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Inevitably, the timing of Clinton's visit to the key presidential primary state will stroke speculation about her potential and, increasingly apparent, 2016 presidential bid. But if you were to ask her about the Iowa trip, she'd likely say it's purely about the Steak Fry.

So, what exactly is this steak event? Who goes? And why does everyone seem to care?

Here's everything you need to know about the Iowa Steak Fry (and spoiler alert: the steak's not actually fried):

What is a "steak fry"?

A Steak Fry is essentially a barbeque party that features steak on the menu.

What's the deal with Tom Harkin's Steak Fry?

The retiring Sen. Harkin's annual Steak Fry is a longstanding Iowa tradition that started in 1972 on a local family farm to raise money for his first congressional campaign. Over the years, the Steak Fry, which originally cost $2 a ticket and had just 40 attendees, has grown and evolved into a signature political event that attracts thousands of Iowans, politicos and Democratic hopefuls seeking state and nationwide exposure. In recent years, headliners have included President Obama, Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. After 37 years, however, this upcoming Steak Fry will be the last. Harkin is stepping down after serving 30 years in the Senate.

Where is it?

The Steak Fry has been held at various locations in Iowa through the years, but one of the most common, and the chosen spot for its final year, is the National Balloon Classic Balloon Field in Indianola, Iowa, about 20 miles outside Des Moines.

When is it?

This Sunday, Sept. 14th, from 1 to 4 p.m. CT.

Who's going to be there?

In addition to Harkin, his wife, Ruth Harkin, and headline speakers, Bill and Hillary Clinton, a number of local Democratic Iowa politicians and midterm candidates will be speaking at the Steak Fry this year, including agriculture secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Rep. Bruce Braley, who is running for Harkin's open Senate seat, Jack Hatch, the Democratic nominee for Governor, and four congressional candidates. As for the viewers, the organizers say for this final sendoff of the Steak Fry, they are expecting a larger-than-normal crowd, roughly 5,000 people. This would make it the biggest Steak Fry since 2007, when all presidential primary candidates, including Obama and Hillary Clinton, were in attendance. (More than 10,000 people showed up that year, for perspective.)

Why is Hillary Clinton going?

Despite speculation of her 2016 ambitions and the possibility she's beginning to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton will tell you her appearance at the Steak Fry is just about the friendship. The Clintons are longtime friends of Harkin and his wife, dating to 1992 when both Bill Clinton and Tom Harkin were running for president. Earlier this summer, Hillary Clinton's spokesman said she is merely attending the Steak Fry to "see her old friend and colleague" and to "help raise money for important races in Iowa."

Have the Clintons been before?

Yes. Bill Clinton has headlined three times (in 1992, 1996 and 2003), and Hillary Clinton once (in 2007 during her presidential primary campaign).

What's the deal with the fried steak?

Sorry to burst any bubbles, but it turns out the steaks at the Steak Fry are not actually fried. Despite the event's name, we're told the steaks are always grilled. This year, the local grocery store chain, Hy-Vee, is catering the event, and also plans to offer grilled chicken and veggie burger.

Are we going to see Hillary Clinton grill a steak?

Get ready, yes, you will get to see both Bill and Hillary Clinton hover over a grill and cook up a large, hunky piece of Iowa meat. (That said, the now waist-watching former president couldchoose the veggie burger option instead, but who knows?)

Also, isn't there a butter sculpture?

Nope, wrong event. The famous cow-shaped butter sculpture tradition happens at the Iowa State Fair. That event also has fried food and is frequented by politicians, but occurs in August and is not related at all to Harkin or to his Steak Fry.

Will Ready for Hillary be there?

Oh, you bet. The pro-Hillary Clinton super-PAC urging her to run for president has major plans for Clinton's big return to the Iowa stage Sunday. They're stationing the Ready for Hillary bus there to hand out free T-shirts, signs and rally supporters. They're organizing buses to transport students from colleges around the state to the Steak Fry. And they're hoping to post huge billboards near the event so everyone ("including Hillary," they say) can see she already has huge support.

How do Iowans feel about Hillary Clinton?

It's complicated. Ever since Clinton, 66, came in third in the Iowa caucuses, where she was largely expected to win, her relationship with the state has been rocky. A Des Moines Register poll earlier this year, however, would suggest Iowans are receptive to her 2016 run (the poll showed that 88 percent of Iowa Democrats think Clinton should run again.) And even Harkin is confident she has Iowa support.

"I think you will find at the Steak Fry that Iowans love Hillary - and Bill," he told the Washington Post.

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