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All-American Iowa

Catherine Ledner Enjoying a meal at Taylor's Maid-Rite, a Marshalltown establishment since 1928.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

We stay the night in tiny Perry, 30 miles northwest of Des Moines, at the eccentrically splendid Hotel Pattee. Thanks to a $10 million restoration by a woman named Roberta Green Ahmanson, who grew up in the town, became a journalist, and married a California financier, the English Arts and Crafts–style hotel is the fanciest lodging with the plainest setting that I've ever unpacked a suitcase in. Down in the basement there's an immaculate vintage bowling alley, up on the roof there's a modern sculpture garden, and in the chandeliered mahogany lobby there are enough Persian rugs to fly Aladdin to Mars and back. Meanwhile, outside in Perry, there's a laundromat with a broken change machine and a muscle car parked out front whose finish consists of gray primer and off-white house paint.

Every room at the Pattee has a theme. In ours, the theme is colorful folk art—so much folk art in so many colors and covering so many different surfaces, from the desk to the dresser to the TV cabinet, that my mind continues to swarm with purple animal shapes after I shut my eyes to go to sleep. We breakfast the next morning in David's Milwaukee Diner, the hotel's restaurant, where the night before I ate a "Maytag blue cheese cake" that successfully purged the white-gravy taste from my palate. At breakfast, I drink the best coffee I'll ever have in Iowa, admire the railroad-themed murals and décor, and try to remember a funny folk-art dream I had featuring a dancing orange milk-cow.

The antiques trail that morning takes us north and east past rolling lullaby hills and plowed-up fields whose soil is as rich and dark as devil's food cake. In Boone, we knock on the door of an establishment called the Soup & Snoop that I'm hoping can sell me a T-shirt with its name on it, but when no one answers we drive away and find ourselves in the village of Nevada, which proudly bills itself on a roadside sign as The 26th-best small town in America. I ask the owner of a surprisingly funky vintage-clothes store which scientific sociological survey determined Nevada's ranking, but she can't tell me. She seems to grow defensive, so Lola buys a lace dress to cool her down. We make our getaway and head to Marshalltown, where we end up eating lunch at the oddest restaurant in the state, perhaps the nation: Taylor's Maid-Rite.

This story deserves some telling. Maid-Rite is an Iowa-born chain of first-generation fast-food franchises (it was founded in 1926) that never caught on outside of its home region and has pretty much died out even there, perhaps because its signature dish—the sublimely uncomplicated Maid-Rite burger—resembles something created in a VA hospital during a catastrophic budget crunch. The recipe for this minimalist comfort food consists of barely seasoned loose ground beef (cut from whole hindquarters hanging in the basement) spilled haphazardly onto a white bun and served with pickles, a little bit of onion, and a thin swipe of mustard but no ketchup. According to the counterman I chat with, Taylor's Maid-Rite hasn't offered ketchup since its opening in 1928 because hoboes used to steal bottles of the condiment from diners and mix it with hot water to make soup. By nipping such pilferage in the bud, the restaurant has not only saved a tidy sum that must come to well over $30 by now, but has also removed the slightest possibility that its touchingly loyal customer base will ever demographically expand past the group of guys in old John Deere caps who appear to have just finished eating when we sit down but who linger another 10 minutes, I surmise out of simple amazement at seeing two new faces. When we clean our plates with the plastic spoons provided to gather up the unruly crumbled burgers, the fellows nod at us as if to say, "Thanks for sticking with it. You're one of us now." Then we go downstairs to view the carcasses.

"Save any room for pie?" the counterman asks as we stand beside the meat hooks. "It's all homemade, you know."

"You bet," I say.

I can't believe I said it, but I did, and I don't regret it. The pie is excellent.

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