It’s her lilting southern drawl that drew me in to conversation.
In a few brief moments, I learned that her background in agriculture and home economics had some similarity to mine. Just as Miss NiNi’s life’s journey had led to Iowa, I yearned to know more about my new friend’s migration to our great state!
Her name is Karen—Karen McKilligan. We met a few years ago at the Iowa State Fair (ISF). She, along with dozens of other men and women, annually volunteer to assist iconic long-time superintendent, Arlette Hollister, in running a “well-oiled machine” called the Iowa State Fair Food Department.
As I chatted with Karen, she stated, “When you’re in agriculture, all roads lead to Iowa.” For this sweet, slightly built woman, those roads meandered through a multiple of states.
The Road to Iowa
Consider her GPS road map, Dear Readers: Florida-born and farm raised with a strong 4-H background, Auburn-University (Alabama) schooled in ag business, first professional job experience in Illinois where she met the love of her life, a stint of professional time in Nebraska Cornhusker territory, and eventually settling in Iowa.
Karen and I have different purposes for calling the ISF Elwell Food Building home. Miss NiNi is a former baking contestant and now contest sponsor. Since 2010, Karen has volunteered as a runner and judge’s comment writer.
But, hang on to your hats! Karen’s leadership manifested into renown status two years ago when she was selected by Ms. Hollister to mentor the complete operation of this “well-oiled machine” in order to embrace the role of Assistant Food Superintendent.
With every word spoken to me, it was evident that Karen’s heart shows deep passion for the Iowa State Fair along with each and every exhibitor whose entries vie for colorful ribbon awards.
“It’s our responsibility in the food department to make sure that all entries are handled properly and get to the right place at the right time.” That, alone, is a task in itself as over 5000 exhibits entered their doors for competition.
A Feeling of Family
Miss NiNi would take this a step further and relate that those faithful volunteers do their absolute best to create a feeling of a compassionate family in order to calm the anxiety of first-time exhibitors as well as those mega-entry competitors who might be living on fumes rather than sleep!
Having worked at the food exhibits’ entry table for three years, Karen was exposed to the requirements of food exhibition, thereby gaining a better understanding of the process. Not only does a contestant need to make the product well, but it must be presented well, and include the completed required paperwork that must accompany each exhibit.
Karen’s mentoring-Arlette-reign began in 2015. But, her leadership capacity as the assistant grew considerably this year with more of the-buck-stops-here authority. Just as the tides in life shift, so they did for the ISF Food Department. Ms. Hollisister was recuperating from an accident and unfortunately was unable to have been at this year’s fair. That’s when Karen’s leadership characteristics kicked into overdrive to continue the smooth-as-silk operation in the Elwell Food Building.
When I asked Karen, “What makes the food department at the Iowa State Fair unique to other fairs,” she replied, “The number of entries, quality of entries and everything about our state fair is so much bigger and better.”
She added, “At our state fair, all of our judging is done live—in front of an audience of contestants and spectators.” By doing this, judges’ comments help educate those watching. At other state fairs, the judging is done ‘behind the curtains with no opportunity to learn to improve the quality of an entry.’”
This uniqueness of judging helps “improve the entire food culture for our families,” according to Ms. McKilligan. She also noted that it presents a platform that affirms the talents of our great Iowa cooks and bakers.
Dear Readers, what does the future hold for this prestigious ISF department under Karen McKilligan’s lead?
“I want to make things as clear, concise, and workable as possible to allow for the best experience for all!” she states.
In Capable Hands
I couldn’t help but ask if there was anything that she especially would remember about her inaugural reign.
Karen shared this. ”I keep coming back to seeing the delight on the face of (long-time exhibitor) Louise Piper after having won a blue ribbon in the All-American Apple Pie Contest. She is a seasoned veteran who has exhibited in the food department for years and years and years but still gets ecstatic when she wins a ribbon! Louise has plenty of non-winners too, and she never complains about that, realizing the level of competition she has faced. But, boy, does she delight in the wins! Seeing the life-giving joy that the experience provides for cooks and bakers of all ages is inspiring and rewarding to me. That’s the highlight!”
Dear Readers, under Karen McKilligan’s skillful hand, the Iowa State Fair Food Department is in extremely capable hands for years and years to come!