Recipes for Success

Jo Ellen Whitney has been entering dishes in the Iowa State Fair for 20 years—and she has no intention of stopping

Super Lawyers online-exclusive

By Jessica Ogilvie on September 5, 2023


Jo Ellen Whitney started entering recipes in the Iowa State Fair on a dare.

Twenty years ago, the self-described “hockey mom” was strolling by the cornbread competition and spotted a loaf that had seen better days. Turning to her uncle, she told him she could best it.  

“[Uncle] Duke just looked me and goes, ‘You need to put your money where your mouth is, darlin’!’” she says now, laughing.

She took him up on it and, now, Whitney estimates she’s entered several hundred items in the fair over the years, including one year in which she submitted 45. She’s won multiple contests and has brought her husband and son into the world of food competition along with her.

“I love the fair,” she says. “And when you enter, when you exhibit, it’s a whole different thing. You meet different people, you have a different, deeper, more entertaining experience.”

Whitney has been cooking since she was a child. Not wanting to work in the garden or go fishing, she says, she was very happy to turn whatever her family procured from the outdoors into dinner.

“I have great memories of making raspberry jam and apricot preserves with my grandmother and mom when I was very small,” Whitney says. “My first solo dish was horrible, but my dad ate it, survived, and really encouraged me to keep trying.”

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that she would get involved in the Iowa State Fair’s food competition. The largest of its kind in the country, over 6,800 items were entered this year in 138 categories, called divisions. Contests ran the gamut from baked goods and canned goods to game, including such entries as “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner,” “Mine is the Best BBQ Sauce,” “Inventive Rhubarb,” “Bacon, Bacon, Bacon,” and “O Come All Ye Cookies.”

Over the years, Whitney has created myriad submissions from original recipes.

“I do meat and barbecue sauce, and I do savory breads,” she says. “And I like odd combinations of flavors.”

One such combination was her award-winning pumpkin bread made with Mexican chocolate, cayenne pepper and candy pepitas on top. The creativity of the recipe—plus the delicious execution—was what caught the judges’ eyes and taste buds.

“Pumpkin bread is a really difficult category to win in, because everybody makes pumpkin bread,” Whitney says. 

She doesn’t spend all year working on her entries, she says, but if an idea comes to her, she’ll start taste-testing right away.

“My [law] firm likes it, because people here get to eat the leftovers,” she says.

Despite the mouth-watering recipes that abound during fair time, Whitney says her favorite part of the event is not the baked goods or the meat smoked to perfection, but the friendships.

“The people are so cool,” she says. “We swap stories about, like, the cats getting in the cake batter. … You get to know people. You might only see them once a year, but there’s a camaraderie that develops in the competition. You know, you win, or they win—it’s just fun.”

In recent years, Whitney’s son picked up the food competition mantle, baking award-winning Snickerdoodles—another difficult category in which to stand out. He headed off to college this year, meaning that the family was in the throes of getting him set up during fair time.

But Whitney has 2024 in her sights. “I already have plans for next year,” she says. “I have a new BBQ side dish I’m trying to perfect.”

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