KEOKUK, Iowa. This town of 10,780 in southeast Iowa proclaimed itself the “Starch Capital of America” in 1991 after a Parade Magazine survey found that residents depended on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread and pasta for more than 80% of the carbohydrates in their diet. “It’s a tradition we grow up with,” says Oliver Yoder, a farm implement dealer who eats mashed potato sandwiches for lunch three days a week. “I’d eat ’em every day of the week but our daughter Lurleen is trying to keep her slim, girlish figure.”
Deep-fried mashed potato sandwich.
That sense of civic pride was amplified when the National Starch Council, the leading trade association and lobbying group for starch producers, decided to move its headquarters here from Muncie, Indiana, bringing both jobs and prestige to a town whose most significant previous claim to fame was native son Ernie Doerk, a dirt-track stock car racer of the 1950′s.
Ernie Doerk, dirt-track champion.
“Ernie did a lot to put Grain Valley on the map but you ask a kid who he was these days and all you get is a blank stare,” says Yoder. “I think some of ’em may be on drugs.”
Miss Starch of 2016
So residents were flattered by the national media attention they attracted in 2013 for the first annual “Days of Starch Festival,” complete with nightly fireworks, a Miss Starch contest, and unlimited free samples of spaghetti, breads and potato products from exhibitors. “We had the Today Show do a live feed from the ‘Name That Tuber’ display,” says Melinda Forsberg, a school teacher who loves starch so much she calls her three children the “Tater Tots.” “Al Roker isn’t as fat as he looks on TV,” she adds with a knowing smile. “He’s fatter.”
Roker: The camera adds five pounds, or about one helping of mashed potatoes.
Starch producers ramp up for the four weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, their peak sales period when stuffing, potatoes and bread may be consumed at a single holiday meal. “We’ve got to make hay–or at least spaghetti–when the sun shines,” says NSC Executive Director Wilbur Freeling. “When spring comes, everybody switches to rabbit food.”
Residents complained about constipation when last summer’s starch festival ended, and town officials say they will have EDTs–emergency dietary technicians–on call beginning next week with high-dosage fiber supplements. “To get the world to pay attention to starches,” says Yoder, “a little widespread intestinal pain is a small price to pay.”