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In the Kitchen with... Karen McKilligan
By Carol McGarvey | Photography by Ben Lochard
IN THE KITCHEN WITH... August/September 2018
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Karen McKilligan
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Check out these recipes from Karen McKilligan:

Cinnamon Rolls

Rhubarb Pie

McSmoked Meatloaf

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‘Our Fair Lady’ takes the helm at the Elwell Family Food Center at the Iowa State Fair.

This year’s Iowa State Fair marks “show time” for Karen McKilligan of Ames. It’s when she takes on the public persona of food superintendent at the ever-busy Elwell Family Food Center. She’s been preparing for it for some time actually. “I started volunteering at the fair in 2010,” she explains. “Then, after the fair in 2016, Arlette Hollister, food superintendent for 30-plus years, asked me if I would consider taking over for her after she retired.”

Karen shadowed Arlette, noting every meticulous detail of the huge job. She was to have continued that job through last year’s fair. However, Arlette became ill before the fair, and Karen’s “trial by fire” happened a year in advance. “I had so much good help that we made it through last year.”

Sadly, another stalwart of the food competition was Merrill McNabb of West Des Moines, a longtime food broker and lover of the fair. “I have so relied on Merrill for so many details,” she says. “He passed away in May, so we will be without him also this year.”

Long-range ideas

But not to worry. Karen’s efficiency and long-range ideas will persevere. She hopes to increase participation in the food competitions at the fair. “It’s so much a part of our culture that we must carry it forward.”

She also hopes to improve the spectator experience. People love to watch the food competitions, but she says it’s important to learn things, too. “For example, we’re having some of our sponsors do programs to teach about cooking ideas. Mariposa Herbs will show how to cook with herbs, and Great River Maple Syrup will offer new ideas for incorporating maple syrup into more dishes.” Karen’s longtime goal would be to have a real demonstration kitchen in the Elwell Center, complete with overhead mirrors, for more demonstration possibilities, such as by commodity groups.

All roads have brought Karen to this point. A Florida native (Gainesville and Ocala), she graduated from Auburn University in Alabama, where she majored in ag business. She worked on meat and livestock judging teams, was active in 4-H, and later worked in the swine industry.

There she met her husband, Denny, who works in product development for nutritional items for food-producing animals. The couple has lived in Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. They came to Ames in 1999. They have two grown children, Karla in marketing for Holmes Murphy in West Des Moines and Ryan in the Air Force in South Korea, and one grandson.

Loves to explore

While she’s a Southerner at heart, she has loved exploring restaurants and new foods wherever she has lived. “Without a doubt, I have adapted new tastes to my own cooking.” She loves to bake and cook, including traditional holiday goodies, and likes incorporating seasonal items.

Favorite foods to make are homemade macaroni and cheese, pork loin, biscuits and gravy, breakfast burritos, lasagna, chili (white and Santa Fe versions), along with lots of pies.

She’s particularly proud of her huge collection of cast-iron pans and Dutch ovens in various sizes, all from Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Denny is a master smoker and griller, so they combine their skills.

Karen loves sharing foods with others. She grows tomatoes and peppers and enjoys annual visits to the Mennonite gardens in Charles City, “where they have the best flowers and plants.”

Year-round focus

While her food position is public at the fair, it’s actually year-round in its focus. “It really starts in November, and January and February are crazy. Everything has to be ready by March.”

All year is spent courting and getting new sponsors. This year, for example, 40 new food contests will be added, for a total purse of cash and prizes totaling more than $56,000. Karen loves that it’s not only companies, but individuals, such as Eileen Gannon and her family, who sponsor contests.

Karen says the most popular contest now is the Ugly Cake contest for kids, which draws lots of spectators. This year it’s worth $200 to the winner.

“I love that food is such a legacy in Iowa. Teaching our kids and passing along food favorites is so special. It’s a way to spread the love of food, and it celebrates our culture.”

New Food Contests At the Iowa State Fair

This year’s fair features 40 new food competitions. Here’s a sampling:

  • Fresh Preserving for Youth by Ball and Kerr Preserving Products.
  • Filled Chocolates and Iowa’s Best Fudge by Beaverdale Confections.
  • Sweet Iowa Cupcakes by C&H Sugar.
  • Chili Cook-Off by Faribault Foods/Mrs. Grimes.
  • Iowa State Fair Food Department Leftover Competition by Eileen Gannon and children, Helen and Graham Hutchison.
  • Glazed Over (a doughnut contest) by Kitchen Collage of Des Moines.
  • Fresh Vegetable Creations by Lauterbach Buick GMC of Newton.
  • Tailgating Treats for My Team by Noble Auto Group of Newton.
  • Death by Chocolate Raspberry by Streff Family.
  • The Great Iowa Food (TGIF) Challenge by Valentine Food Company.
  • Iowa’s Best Biscotti by Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure.

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