Iowans Treasure Comfort Foods

By Cristen Clark

Many of Iowans’ favorite comfort foods are unique to our state. Discover some familiar favorites along with recipes. Plus, share your recipes and memories for a chance to win a prize.

 Comfort foods conjure up sweet memories and deliver joy with each bite. Some comfort foods are regional cuisines identified with vacations, life chapters or the people who served them. The most interesting characteristic I find in comfort foods is their ability to be transportive, taking a person to a place in time that envelops them in joyful memories and feelings of nostalgia.

As a food writer for nearly a decade, I’m often asked about my favorite comfort foods. My answer is always my favorite food: bread and butter. I believe I acquired my love of baking bread from my paternal and maternal grandmas, Madeline and Celeste. Both grandmas used to bake the tastiest country loaves, which always managed to be taken out of the oven just as we arrived for a visit. While Grandma Celeste baked her loaves with the convenience of a bread machine, Grandma Madeline made every loaf from scratch, using her hands to knead the dough to perfection.


Iowa Ham Balls (recipe below) are favorite comfort food for many of the state’s residents.

Comfort Food Favorites

Many of Iowans’ preferred comfort foods are unique to our home state, and these are my favorites.

Ham Balls. Ground pork and ham is portioned up meatball style and draped in a sweet and savory brown sugar glaze. This classic Iowa delicacy is typically accompanied by mashed potatoes and green beans or a corn casserole.

Hot Beef or Hot Turkey. If you go to any diner or sale barn kitchen in Iowa, you’ll likely find a classic hot sandwich on the menu, featuring a bed of homemade bread, layers of sliced roast beef or turkey and scoops of freshly made mashed potatoes topped with beef or turkey gravy. This hearty dish is a complete meal.

Cinnamon Rolls. I became interested in baking cinnamon rolls several years ago after learning I could win $3,000 in a cinnamon roll baking contest at the Iowa State Fair. What makes Iowa’s cinnamon rolls so famous is how they are often served alongside a bowl of chili at restaurants and in school lunches. This unlikely pairing is one that many Iowans adore!

Whether enjoyed at home with your own recipe or at an “Iowa-famous” restaurant, Maid-Rites appeal to people of all ages.

Maid-Rites. Depending on what part of the state you call home, loose meat sandwiches are called Maid-Rites or Taverns. This savory blend of meat and seasonings is piled high on a soft bakery-style bun. In 1926, the idea for this famous sandwich came from a Muscatine butcher, Fred Angell. Legend has it he offered one of his sandwiches to a delivery man who enjoyed it so much that he said, “Fred, you know this sandwich is made right!” To this day, you will find this sandwich offered on local diner menus and at family gatherings across the state. Learn more about Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, which has served their signature loose meat sandwich for more than 90 years.

Grilled Burgers, Sweet Corn and BLT’s. Comfort food doesn’t limit itself to a specific time of year. If you dine during the summer or early fall months in Iowa, you’ll likely enjoy a lunchtime spread with BLT’s and sweet corn. For supper, sliced tomatoes with salt and pepper, more sweet corn and grilled burgers are often on the menu.

We would love to know about your favorite comfort foods. Share those foods, memories or recipes with us at, and we just might publish your story and recipe! If we publish your content, we’ll award you with an Iowa Food & Family Project prize!

Iowa Ham Balls

Makes 18-24 ham balls

  • 2 pounds ham loaf (this is a ground ham mixture that can be purchased at most Iowa grocery stores)
  •  1 pound ground beef (or ground pork or turkey)
  • 2 cups crushed butter crackers
  • ¼ cup minced dehydrated onion
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1½ cups milk


  • 1½ cups ketchup
  • 1½ cups brown sugar
  • ¼ cup vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine ham loaf, ground beef, crackers, onion, egg and milk. Toss mixture with a fork, only until combined.

Shape mixture into 1/4-cup sized balls. Place in a greased 9x13-inch baking dish. Bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees F.

Meanwhile, combine ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar and mustard powder in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil while stirring, then immediately remove from heat.

After the ham balls have baked for 45 minutes, remove from the oven. Pour brown sugar glaze over semi-baked ham balls.

Return baking dish to oven for 15 minutes to set the glaze and finish cooking ham balls.

Ham balls are done baking when a digital instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads 160 degrees F or above.

Once baking is complete, remove baking dish from oven and cool for a few minutes. Serve ham balls warm with classic sides like buttermilk mashed potatoes and steamed corn.

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

Yield: Makes one large mixing bowl of mashed potatoes

  • 5 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, quartered
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon seasoned salt (Lawry’s)
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • Fresh chives or green onion tops for garnish


Bring four quarts of water to a boil in a large stock pot. Add potatoes and 2 tablespoons salt. Boil potatoes for 15 minutes, or until tender.

Strain potatoes into a large mixing bowl. Beat or mix potatoes lightly for 30 seconds or until no large lumps remain and the potatoes are somewhat smooth. Add buttermilk, butter, seasoned salt, pepper and salt to potatoes.

Mix only until combined. Garnish with chopped fresh chives or green onion tops.