Ready to roll at the Iowa State Fair: This food judge moves from chili to cinnamon rolls.


DES MOINES, Iowa, July 29, 2023 – Jamie Buelt, owner of the public relations and marketing agency “en Q strategies” in Des Moines, has been involved in some of the biggest business, political and community campaigns around Iowa over recent decades.  But her husband Gary Buelt, their kids, and a few of us friends long ago realized what she’s always really wanted to be – the food superintendent at the Iowa State Fair.

Luckily, that position has never been open when Buelt was available, so she was able to help several good, big projects in the state become reality.  But we knew.

Buelt not only enters food contests at the fair, she also has organized and arranged sponsors for some big ones.  And she usually drags me into them as one of the judges.  She’ll pair me up with judges who really know their stuff, and my role, as you can probably imagine, is to keep the conversation lively when the judging gets tedious, as it can.

For the past 13 fairs, she has organized “Mother Podolak’s Chili Contest,” in which Iowa Hawkeye football & broadcasting great Ed Podolak, the Hawks’ play-by-play man Gary Dolphin, Hawkeye basketball great Bobby Hansen and I would “try to find a chili as good as Mom’s,” as Ed always said.  We had a ball.  “But we decided after all these years, it had sort of run its course,” Buelt said.

So here we come, cinnamon rolls!

Chuck Offenburger is in training for his Iowa State Fair duty, here sampling a fine cinnamon roll made by his wife Mary Riche.

“It seems to me like everybody in Iowa loves cinnamon rolls, and I think we should have a really good cinnamon roll contest at the Iowa State Fair – one with big enough prizes to get the attention of all those bakers out there,” she said.

She has now launched “The Great Cinnamon Roll Contest of 2023,” which will be held on Aug. 19, the last Saturday of the fair, at 1:30 p.m. in the Elwell Family Food Center.  I’m giving you plenty of notice here.

Get this – the cash prize for the first place roll is $1,000! 

Then the breakdown is $500 for second, $250, $125, $75 and $50 for sixth place.

Jamie Buelt, cinnamon rolls contest boss.

I also note that the official Iowa State Fair listing for this contest is that it is “sponsored by Jamie Buelt in support of Chuck Offenburger and his travels across Iowa looking for the perfect cinnamon roll.”

Uh, is she trying to kill me?

Jamie Buelt and maybe a few other people across Iowa still remember that from July of 1982 through the Iowa State Fair in August of 1986, I was the self-appointed czar of cinnamon rolls in this state.

Of course I loved eating them – well, in moderation.  Doesn’t everybody?

But my life changed in early summer of ’82.  That’s when an Iowa State University journalism student, Jim Larson, who was commuting from Ames to Des Moines for a summer internship with us at the Des Moines Register, mentioned he was stopping most mornings for a cinnamon roll at Murf’s Café in little Alleman, midway between the cities.  He raved about them.  I oohed and aahed. Next day, he brought me one.  It was great!

“You know, every restaurant in Iowa has these things,” Larson told me. “You ought to rate them, just like the sports guys rate basketball teams.”

I did.  The headline of my “Iowa Boy” column of July 1, 1982, was, “Rating Iowa’s cinnamon rolls.”  I announced the debut of the “Roll Poll,” and declared that the No. 1 roll in the state was at Murf’s Café in Alleman.  I made up my own slogan for café owners Harvey and Colleen Murphy: “If you can find Alleman, you can find Murf’s.” 

Hundreds did find it in coming days, and baker Colleen Murphy was driven a little crazy by the increased workload.  “We’ve had offices calling up from far away and asking us to send a couple dozen,” said Harvey. “No kidding now – we’ve shipped rolls by United Parcel Service to Wisconsin, Colorado and Arizona.  We’re starting to limit the special orders, though. We’re just not set up for mass production.”

(One more fun note about Murf’s Café.  As I wrote in my column, “Now it’s not only the seat of sweetness in this state, it’s also the seat of city government in Alleman.  Murf rents a room in the basement to the town council. ‘I always wanted to own City Hall,’ he deadpanned.”)

I included four other rolls in that first listing – at restaurants in Atlantic, the Amana Colonies and Cedar Rapids – and they all got very busy, too.

Two pans of Mary Riche rolls!

Little did I realize what would follow.  The corny “Roll Poll” idea turned into one of the most popular features I ever offered at the Register. 

Over the next four years, I must’ve compiled and released a dozen to 15 new Roll Polls – always with a new No. 1 roll.  The rolls had to be homemade, publicly available in a place where you could also get a cup of coffee, with a place to sit down and enjoy the delicacy.  With every new poll, I’d get dozens of new letters from readers, telling me about even better rolls in other cafes.

Some of the best, both from my memory and from a check of Register archives:

–The rolls made by Maxine Arney at Maxine’s Catering in Holstein in northwest Iowa. Maxine had a catering business that operated mostly in the evenings.  When she’d have left over mashed potatoes, she’d stir some of them into her roll dough the next morning, and that proved to be a perfect ingredient.  Some of Iowa’s best cinnamon roll bakers today are still stirring in some mashed potatoes.

–“Ronnie’s Rolls” at Ronnie’s Café in Decorah in northeast Iowa.  The students at the local Luther College brought them to my attention – over and over and over.

–The rolls at the Coffee Cup café in little Olds in southeast Iowa.

–Maria Yoder’s rolls at the Kalonial Townhouse in Kalona in east central Iowa.

–The rolls at Brownie’s, a humble cafe tucked away on the edge of downtown Fort Dodge.

–Ida Faulstick’s fantastic rolls at the Chic Tok Restaurant in Emmetsburg in northwest Iowa.

–The rolls at the Machine Shed restaurants, first discovered at their place outside Davenport, later at their location in Urbandale along Interstates 80-35 on the west side of the Des Moines metro area.  But the “best urban roll,” I wrote back then, was actually at the Redwood Café, which I think was also in Urbandale.

–Steve Theis’ creations at Mason’s Café in Newton.

–Burretta Redhead’s classics at the Mason House Inn in Bentonsport in southeast Iowa.

–Zelda Tanke’s rolls at the Victorian Inn in Victor in eastern Iowa.

–The rolls at The Valley restaurant on U.S. Highway 71 northeast of Atlantic in southwest Iowa.

–The rolls at Barlow’s Grocery in Cedar Rapids.

–And the light, wonderful rolls made by Marilyn Puff at the Country Cottage Café in Oelwein.

(Many of those restaurants, I know, are long gone, so don’t expect to find all of them today.)

I should say that lots of individual bakers would send me their rolls, too.

In July, 1986, I wrote from RAGBRAI that between the towns of Red Oak and Audubon in southwest Iowa, individual people had given me 18 cinnamon rolls as I pedaled their way. “I had them in my bike bag,” I wrote. “I had them in two different Register vans.  For crying out loud, I even had an Iowa State Patrol trooper lugging them for me in his car. And when I got to my motel room in Audubon, lusting for a cold beer, who should knock on my door but a wonderful woman with a great big cinnamon roll for me.”

Cinnamon rolls and I have a long, mostly-good relationship.

The Iowa State Fair summoned me back then to become the judge of their cinnamon roll contest.  I thought it was a neat way for me to connect with all those good bakers who were making and serving their rolls at home, and it was.

But I have three bad memories of my roll judging at the state fairs back then. 

On Aug. 16, 1983, I judged solo and ate substantial pieces of more than 75 cinnamon rolls during the contest, and then I had to walk clear across the fairgrounds to get to my car in the parking lot.  The temperature was 108 – still the hottest day on record at the Iowa State Fair – and I mean to tell you, the dough was rising!

I believe it was at the 1985 fair that I followed my tradition of picking the winner, then hustling to the Register newsroom to write a column about it, including the recipe for the winning roll. When I came into the newsroom the next morning, our legendary newsroom telephone operator Georgia Bricker was shaking her fist at me.  “When you put that cinnamon roll recipe in your column this morning, you left out one ingredient – yeast – and you’ve got bakers all over Iowa with dough running all over their kitchen counters,” Bricker yelled. “They are not happy, and neither am I!  I can’t keep up with all these phone calls we’re getting!”

Then at the fair in ’86, I chewed through 55 cinnamon rolls, checked the entry card that was handed to me with the name of the winner, made the dramatic announcement, then went back to the Register.  Two hours later, food superintendent Arlette Hollister called me and said there’d been “an awful mix-up.”  Somehow the entry cards had been shuffled, and I had been given the wrong name as my winner. In my column of apology the next morning, I led with, “After you’ve eaten parts of 55 cinnamon rolls, you shouldn’t have to eat crow, too.”

After that, I bowed out.  The Ankeny-based company Tone’s Spices took over the contest, and did a wonderful job with it for years.

Now my pal Jamie Buelt is calling me back into action as a cinnamon roll judge.  To tell the truth, I couldn’t resist.

And no she’s not trying to kill me.  She’s rounded up a terrific group of well-qualified judges to work with me: 

–Dianna Sheehy, of Audubon, state fair winning baker and judge.

–Eileen Gannon, former state fair contestant who won more than 600 ribbons and is the founder of Sunday Night Foods in Des Moines.

–Deborah “Debbie” Van Den Berg, retired culinary scientist with Hormel Foods, a Fortune 500 company.  Debbie judged the Spam contest at various state fairs, including Iowa’s, for 28 years. In retirement, she continues to teach as well as advocate for food security for the community in need.

–Alex Carter, owner of Black Cat Ice Cream, named the best ice cream shop in Des Moines and Iowa by several publications. He is a blue ribbon winner at a past Iowa State Fair for bread baking. He went on to become a professional pastry chef, and competed on Food Network’s “Chopped!”

See you at the fair!  Especially at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 19, in the Elwell Family Food Center.  Meantime, tell me your own favorite cinnamon roll stories.

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