In search of the real Iowa

University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom stepped in it a week-and-a-half ago when he wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the real Iowa, or at least what he thinks is the real Iowa.

Hats are essential. Men over 50 don’t leave home without a penknife in their pocket. Old Spice is the aftershave of choice. Everyone knows someone who has had an unfortunate and costly accident with a deer (always fatal for the deer, sometimes for the human). Farming is a dangerous occupation; if farmers don’t die from a mishap (getting a hand in an auger, clearing a stuck combine), they live with missing digits or limbs.

Comfort food reigns supreme. Meatloaf and pork chops are king. Casseroles (canned tuna or Tatertots) and Jell-O molds (cottage cheese with canned pears or pineapple) are what to bring to wedding receptions and funerals. Everyone loves Red Waldorf cake. Deer (killed with a rifle is good, with bow-and-arrow better) and handpicked morels are delicacies families cherish.

Religion is the glue that binds everyone, whether they’re Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian. You can’t drive too far without seeing a sign for JESUS or ABORTION IS LEGALIZED MURDER. I’m forever amazed by how often I hear neighbors, co-workers, shoppers, and total strangers talk about religion. In the Hy-Vee grocery store, at neighborhood stop-and-chats, at the local public school, “See you at church!” is the common rejoinder. It’s as though the local house of worship were some neighborhood social club — which, of course, it is. A professor I know at the University of Iowa chides her students for sitting in the back of a lecture hall, saying, “This isn’t church, you know.”

Iowa was not amused. And yesterday, the Ames Tribune answered Bloom:

Bloom asserts that religion — Christian religion — is the dominant subject of discussion in Iowa, that he’s suffered through “years and years of in-your-face religion” here. His evidence: People wish him “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays” and ask whether he’s going to the Easter egg hunt. How awful.

Our experience is that many Iowans are dedicated churchgoers, but most are not on some belligerent mission to convert the unconverted, and their well wishes around the holidays are completely earnest and harm-free.

Much of Bloom’s critique oddly revolves around Iowa’s insistence on preserving some cherished behaviors and traditions of the past. He somehow manages to make it sound bad that many Iowans are courteous drivers and feel comfortable enough to leave their keys in the ignition when they run into a convenience store. Please find us someone who has lived in a big, menacing city who wouldn’t long for such a lifestyle?

Late last week, Kim Bui, a Vietnamese Iowan, defended her state, writing on her KPCC blog (KPCC is MPR’s sister station in southern California) about growing up in Des Moines:

Everything that I am comes from being Iowan. That is why I reply the way I do to people. Iowans say hello, no matter who you are. They will help if you get lost. Iowans may shop at Wal-Mart, but they will pick up your bag if it bursts while walking to your car.

In the fifth grade, I joined the orchestra. I played the violin until the middle of my college career. In high school, I would often play so much (and type so much at night) that I would give myself tendonitis. Mr. Peters, my orchestra teacher was a sweet man who pushed us to be better. We spent nearly a year putting on a opera. High school kids! We practiced for hours a day with members of the choir. We won a Grammy – the first awarded a high school. Orchestra made me understand why teams are important.

Summers are my favorite thing about Iowa. It mean thunderstorms. It meant more late nights drinking coffee and playing loud metal music. I would volunteer for the local AIDS organization more (my two best friends there were transgendered. I did not care). In August would come the Iowa State Fair where we would mullet-watch, drink sasparilla root beer and eat. I loved it.

And Lynda Waddington, a former newspaper editor in Iowa, wrote in The Atlantic over the weekend that the professor shouldn’t have aired the state’s dirty laundry

Interviewing Bloom in the wake of the immigration raid at Postville, he made clear to me he researched the community thoroughly. He never intended to parachute his research, a reference to national political reporters who tend to fly into Iowa for a week or month to “get a flavor” of what the caucus season is really like. Until I read Bloom’s most recent observations, I thought longevity was a fairly good standard — that those who are part of a community or longer-term residents of a state should be the most trusted sources of information. I still believe there is much truth to that perception, but I now also believe length of term isn’t enough. Dignity, respect, a sense of humor and a bit of humility are necessary to make a place home.

Iowa natives, residents and ex-pats: What’s your reaction to Bloom’s assessment of your state?