Hickory Park Barbecue in Ames, IA
CONFIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN MEMO
TO: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Albany, New York
FROM: Stephen Himes, Kansas City, Missouri
SUBJECT: 2016 Iowa Caucuses and the Importance of Local Food
As a New Yorker, you may be uncomfortable with the kind of Midwestern retail politics that wins the Iowa caucuses. Never fear: By and large, we are friendly people. Just understand these broad, probably unfair generalizations — and, when outlining priorities to your staffers, understand the messaging of food.
Obama-hating Midwestern evangelicals are likely to mistrust East Coast urban elites because This is Real America, and if you’re not one of us, then you’re not really American. These are Bachmann / Santorum voters; you’ll never win them anyway.
Midwestern moderate persuadables, though, don’t mind you city people coming out here to the sticks. We’re happy to have you! Go Badgers / Wolverines / Jayhawks / Wildcats / Tigers / Hawkeyes! As long as you don’t condescend to us, we’re always up for showing you how to tailgate, play hammerschlagen, or otherwise participate in a food-and-beverage-based group bonding activity. Remember, Iowa legalized gay marriage and Obama won the Iowa caucuses by nine points in a 96 percent white state.
We’re open to voting for you.
If President Obama and Vice President Biden are re-elected, 2016 will likely be a replay of 2008, with both parties converging on Iowa a year ahead of the caucuses. As Nate Silver explains, the Republicans’ Ames Straw Poll is a decent predictor of electoral strength because it challenges a candidate’s organizational ability.
The Democrats don’t hold their own Ames Straw Poll, but this might be the opportunity to mobilize the Story County Democrats to put on your own statewide fundraiser on the Iowa State University campus. You know, be a Man of the People! Run for President of All the United States. If you decide to do this, do not underestimate the importance of catering! This is your chance to show Midwesterners that you get it!
Look at Michelle Bachmann, the 2011 Ames Straw Poll champion: Sure, she’s Midwestern, but her conservative suburban sensibilities led her to choose Famous Dave’s BBQ for the Straw Poll. This is a clueless abomination. Famous Dave’s is a chain based in the Minneapolis suburbs near Bachmann’s district — the epitome of overpriced, ketchupy strip mall barbecue.
Persuadable moderates in suburbs or small towns, well, they heard about that new place that was in the newspaper, and, you know what? Let’s try it next time we’re in the city.
Persuadable moderates want to try The Local Place when they’re in town — this kind of adventurism is not the Bachmann /Santorum sensibility. So for a city slicker, the quickest way to establish to locals that you get it is to properly cater your events. The by-product is that you send pundits and insiders the message that you’ve got a good political “ground game.”
For your Ames events, there’s one correct answer: Hickory Park Barbecue. Mind you, the actual quality of the barbecue is immaterial to your choosing of Hickory Park Barbecue. It’s Ames’ LOCAL INSTITUTION, so don’t judge it, just try to understand it.
What are you going to get for your non-Super Pac campaign dollars? Granted, this researcher is from Kansas City and has four or five world-class barbecue joints he can reach by city bus. Still, Hickory Park is calculatedly average — if you’re looking for barbecue with an identity (the vinegariness of Arthur Bryant’s sauce or charcoal ribs of Charlie Vergos’, for example), then you don’t get what Hickory Park is doing. The barbecue is beside the point.
From the parking lot to the placemats, Hickory Park is designed as a Family Event. As the peeling laminated menus will tell you, Hickory Park began with church pews room enough for 60, then became an Iowa State football hangout for 80, and finally in 1997 put the church pews and soda fountains in an acre-sized faux-barn at the edge of town. There’s more parking than is necessary, and the wait, even during business times, is minimal. Greeters use headsets to direct parties toward various stoplights in the restaurant, where you’re promptly seated by other greeters with headsets. This coordinated effort extends to the wait staff, who doesn’t rush you but is clearly trained to keep things moving. The ice cream sundaes are not melted when they reach the table.
The décor is post-Depression Americana; the dark wood panels are overstuffed with an array of metal signs that could have been curated by Frank from American Pickers. So, by the time you sit down, Hickory Park has thoroughly tweaked your 1950s country nostalgia. This is by design: The menu outlines the barbecue options in a faux-olde-timey style, and the placemat reminds you to leave room for the “sundae specialties.” You might call the ambiance Ernest Tubb Malt Shop: something for both the grandparents and the kids.
There’s a reason I’m reluctant to talk about the food. It’s not that the food is bad, but it’s simply nondescript. Take the Saucy Southerner, “Hickory Park’s version of a pulled pork sandwich.” Hickory Park isn’t lying — they tell you their “version” of the sandwich is “chopped hickory smoked pork, beef and turkey simmered in barbecue sauce.” Pulled pork, by definition, is not chopped; it’s strips and chunks of pork shoulder ripped into a pile. Hickory Park throws together some various incarnations of white meat and sauce, then puts it on a bleached white bun.
It’s not a bad sandwich, but it’s scarcely barbecue. In fact, the Saucy Southerner (above) feels more like a sloppy Joe with supermarket barbecue sauce. But again, understand that Hickory Park is creating a Big Family Outing: The Saucy Southerner and fries is $4.95. Of course, don’t expect, say, Gates’ thick-cut fries — Hickory Park thaws out some Ore-Ida fries for you. But it’s not bad, you’re enjoying the Big Event feel of the place, and you can feed the entire family for that price.
My wife spent $5.95 on the Smokehouse Link Sandwich, a “1/2 pound of homemade, hand cased polish sausage link made from a flavorful blend of beef, pork and spices.” Basically, they slice a polish sausage in half and put it on a white bread hot dog bun. Again, not bad — in fact, their homemade sausage has some personality: a touch of black pepper spice, and not too greasy, like you’ll get with cheap-meat sausages. She got the baked beans, which come in a pasty brown sauce with a touch of sweetness. Add some sauce to give it a little complexity, and they’re perfectly fine.
Unlike most barbecue places, you don’t get so much food that you’ll need a box. Again, by design, Hickory Park leaves you with enough room for dessert. The foundation of Hickory Park’s desserts is Blue Bunny ice cream — again, the least-expensive-but-perfectly-decent option.
Rather than a sundae, which seemed like a predictable combination of Blue Bunny and Hershey’s, my wife went for the Butterscotch Milkshake. The art of the milkshake is in the thickness and flavoring, accomplished by proper blending. Hickory Park gives you a frothy blend in which the flavor doesn’t sink to the bottom, and it’s not so thick you pass out getting the deliciousness up through the straw. Well worth the $3.20.
I opted for the Streusel Coffee Cake, a spongy swirled cake topped with coffee ice cream, caramel, whipped cream, nuts, a cherry, and — in an inspired touch — “crispy streusel topping.” The result is a delightful blend of textures without the sickly-sweetness of a syrup-based sundae. The crunch of streusel bits with the cake elevated the dish, priced right at $3.95.
And this, Governor, is how you can understand the persuadable moderates of the Midwest through a place like Hickory Park. I’ve had hundreds of meals like this in similar after-church local favorites, and, at their roots, food really isn’t what they’re about. They’re about fellowship.
Look, the whole town is going to be here, so make something we can all like. This doesn’t mean make something bad or bland — Hickory Park’s barbecue isn’t exactly bold, but it is inclusive.
The Saucy Southerner is perfect for milder tastes, the sausage has a little kick, and there’s ice cream for the kids. The truth is that places like Ames aren’t big or diverse enough to support “concept” restaurants in a competitive, niche-driven marketplace. So, if we understand “democracy” as accommodating the diversity of existing tastes in a particular place, then Hickory Park is as democratic as it can be in a small, homogeneous Midwestern city.
Applying this virtue to the entire restaurant experience is how you become The Local Place.
You might see Hickory Park as a kind of down-home meal assembly line dressed in nostalgic pseudo-Texan garb. This is true, in part, but it lacks the offensive tour-bus chow-trough feel of, say, Lambert’s Cafe (“The Only Home of Throwed Rolls”). Rather, Hickory Park is thoughtfully convenient: easy access, quick seating (the kids will be entertained while you wait), attentive service, large menu of time-tested favorites, quick order turnaround, and then you’re on your way.
In other words, it’s as easy and convenient as Thanksgiving at grandma’s house. There’s comfort in knowing exactly what you’re going to get, and Hickory Park gives you the feel, not of ritual exactly, but of home. You respect the experience, even if you can’t convince your grandma that the potatoes could use a little pepper and butter, or the Saucy Southerner doesn’t liven up even with a dollop of the house’s “spicy” sauce. And because Hickory Park chooses the most cost-effective way to deliver a decent meal, you can feed a family of four for less than $30.
In the end, Governor, Hickory Park makes sense for you on several levels. The food is good enough, they’ll deliver it right, and you’ll demonstrate a Gingrichian grasp of local issues.
Don’t show off by trucking in Famous Dave’s from West Des Moines — you’ll impress nobody, and you’ll likely turn some people off by sending the message that the local place isn’t good enough. We are suspicious of those who conspicuously throw their money around, or of preachers who prattle on past kickoff.
People out here remember these things, not because we’re judgmental, but because we appreciate hospitality. For most of us, temperament matters more than politics, and we appreciate it when you make the effort to consider our experience at your event. It helps us spend time with our neighbors at the church potluck / homecoming game / Fourth of July parade.
All that, and the price will help you beef up your Fiscal Conservative bonafides.
Hickory Park Restaurant Co.
Barbecue and ice cream fountain in Ames, Iowa
1404 S Duff Ave
Ames, IA 50010-0765
OWNER: David Wheelock
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Black bean burgers and vegetarian sandwiches
ENTREE RANGE: $4.25-8.50