The contentious history of official state foods
How a bill about muffins, chili, or plums becomes law—or doesn't
Hello, Snackers. Let’s explore the curious crossroads of political squabbling and regional food pride.
Also, apologies for the tardiness—this is last week’s free post, published several days late. Things got busy and tricksy over here. But I trust this one’s worth the wait!
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There are, by my count, 110 official state foods around the USA, a vast buffet of regional pride that sometimes borders on bluster.
Most of these are fruits and vegetables that are strongly associated with a specific place: Georgia’s state fruit is peach; in Florida, it’s orange; and Idaho’s state vegetable is, of course, the humble potato. But there are also state grains, state beans, state cookies, state desserts, state sweeteners, state nuts, state snacks, state herbs, state jellies, state treats, state pies, state cobblers, state breads, and state dairy products. Wisconsin has a state pastry (kringle), Louisiana has a state meat pie (Natchitoches), and Vermont has a state flavor (maple). Oklahoma tries to make everyone happy with an official state meal that includes eleven separate dishes, while Louisiana stands out as the only part of the union bold enough to name an overall state cuisine, which is gumbo.
It’s a fascinating list, one you could spend hours studying, alongside the inventory of state beverages, of which there are 22 (most are milk). As you get into the more esoteric items, a few obvious questions arise, over and over. For starters: Who picked this hodgepodge of foods? And was there ever any debate about some of these seemingly random selections?
The answer to the first question is usually students in elementary, middle or high school—it’s a fun way to see the legislative process in action and learn how a bill becomes law.
The answer to the second question is an emphatic YES—these may not seem like earth-shattering matters, but people get passionate about food. Many of these proposals have sparked heated arguments in legislatures and discourse in the media, and some of the bills have stalled or just flat-out failed, offering students a different sort of lesson about how the political process functions.
Establishing a state fruit or muffin may seem like a broadly low-stakes endeavor, but people take it seriously, and the twists and turns of the process tell a complicated story of cultural identity and political squabbling.
“The beauty of Texas trees and flowers is represented by the pecan and the bluebonnet, and the mockingbird is emblematic of our abundant and varied wildlife,” Texas State Representative Ben Grant said in 1977, as he introduced the legislation that would make chili the official state dish. “But the internationally esteemed cuisine of this great state has received no official recognition and has no official symbol.”
Grant then quoted former President Lyndon Johnson: “Chili concocted outside of Texas is a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing.”
* * *
Credit Helen Loera, a high school student in New Mexico, with starting the trend in 1964. According to coverage in the Albuquerque Journal the following year, Loera had the idea to propose the chile as the state vegetable while taking a history class from a teacher named Arcenio A. Gonzales, who also served in the New Mexico legislature. Another bill had recently passed the black bear as the official state animal, so the issue of state symbols was part of the public conversation, and Gonzalez promised his student that he’d pursue her suggestion if he was reelected. He was, and he got to work at the beginning of the next session, in January 1965.
Gonzalez was a Democrat, and one of his Republican colleagues, John Bigbee, couldn’t help getting in a critique and suggesting a change to the bill. Bigbee represented one of the state’s primary bean-growing regions, and added an amendment adding the pinto bean alongside the chile, as joint official state vegetables. “I would hate to have to go back home and tell people we left the beans out of their chili,” he told The Santa Fe New Mexican. The amended bill passed unanimously, and New Mexico became the first state to designate an official state food of any kind.
It also set the stage for another battle at the capitol in Santa Fe thirty years later, when the legislature debated and then passed an official state question—“Red or green?”—which references a choice between two different types of chile, an all-important decision facing patrons of the state’s restaurants.
Despite bipartisan support for the bill, then-Governor Gary Johnson vetoed it in April 1995, saying the whole thing was a waste of time and would necessitate reprinting government documents. Johnson was widely ridiculed for the veto, because it seemed like such an easy win for state pride—the question truly is common in New Mexico—and an opportunity for widespread publicity. One letter to the editor printed in The Albuquerque Tribune called it “a doltish maneuver,” which seemed to sum up the overall mood. And a year later, when the legislature passed the bill again, Johnson signed it into law. Since 1996, “Red or green?” has been the official state question of New Mexico. The proper answer is “Christmas,” meaning both kinds of chile.
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Governor Gary Johnson’s complaint is not atypical. As bills related to state foods wind their way through the legislative process, with classrooms full of eager students tracking every move, it’s fairly common to hear both politicians and everyday citizens say the bills are a poor use of time. In many cases, it must be said, the actual text of the legislation is just a sentence or two long, meaning it’s easy to draft, read, and pass—the arguments about wasting time take up many more hours than just passing the thing straight away.
Sometimes, the critics have won and proposed state foods have failed. Consider the plight of the cranberry muffin. In 1988, students at an elementary school in Merrill, Wisconsin proposed making it the official state muffin and worked with their state senator, Democrat Lloyd Kincaid, to bring it to a vote. At the time, Wisconsin was the nation’s second-largest producer of cranberries (since then, it’s zoomed to the top of the list, by a significant margin), so it seemed like a worthy crop to celebrate. The students sent 150 letters to cranberry growers and politicians, and even traveled to the state capitol in Madison to lobby for their proposal. The Associated Press reported on what happened next:
The bill was within a few minutes of final approval by the Legislature when a state senator began offering amendments to designated numerous variations on the state muffin, for instance picking the Egg McMuffin as the official state breakfast muffin.
It was the end of the legislative session and lawmakers wanted to go home, so the bill’s supporters gave up rather than dealing with the sarcastic amendments, which also included designating “the ragamuffin as the state’s official child muffin.” One legislator proposed altering the original bill to do away with muffins altogether and simply name the cranberry as the Wisconsin state fruit; this vote also failed.
“It really and truly was derisive the way they did it,” the students’ teacher, Elaine Tabor told The Country Today, a newspaper in Eau Claire. “I mean, these are second graders. It didn’t cost the state anything. I felt very badly the way it was handled. It was a literal slap in the face. I don’t know what this is teaching the students.”
Tabor’s classes kept trying. In 1989, Kincaid proposed the bill again, only to meet a new obstacle: Rep. Dale Schultz, a Republican, thought the state muffin should be the “meadow muffin,” better known as a cow pie and very much inedible for humans. This would honor his constituents, Schultz said, in particular the town of Prairie du Sac, which holds an annual event called the Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw & Festival (it’s still going, by the way, and is now sponsored Culver’s, the fast-food chain).
A year later, the Merrill students—now in fourth grade—gave it another go, only to have Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson decree that he was done signing any bills about state symbols, although it’s worth noting that he said this immediately after approving corn as the state grain. “We’re saturated,” Thompson said. “I would love to see this be the last one, and I don’t intend to sign any more.”
To this day, Wisconsin still does not have a state muffin, although cranberries finally got their due and were named the state fruit in 2003, at the request of a fifth-grade class from Kenosha County.
Foods, it’s worth noting, a hardly the only seemingly innocuous state symbol to cause a stir in various legislatures. In 1988, while Oklahoma was passing its official state meal (which includes an 8- to 10-ounce steak “carved … to resemble the shape of Oklahoma), California was debating possibilities for the state mollusk. Democratic Assemblyman Byron Sher proposed the banana slug, but Republicans pushed for the abalone, based on bizarre, homophobic logic: as one assemblyman put it, “the banana slug is a bisexual pervert. The abalone is straight. That’s important.”
The banana slug won.
* * *
Ten states—Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, and Pennsylvania—don’t have any official state foods (neither, for that matter, do the District of Columbia or any of U.S. territories; I checked). Of those that do, the number and types of official foods follow no discernable pattern.
Rhode Island’s two foods are the Greening apple (state fruit) and calamari (state appetizer). It’s amusing to consider these appearing together on a plate, and the same is true of Missouri’s food trio, the Eastern black walnut (state tree nut), Norton/Cynthiana grapes (the state grape; there is no state fruit), and ice cream cones (the state dessert, designated because they were popularized at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis). Maine keeps things sugary with a state pie (blueberry), a state treat (Whoopie pie), and a state sweetener (pure maple syrup). Alabama gets technical by having pecans and peanuts as the state nut and state legume, respectively, and blackberries and peaches as the state fruit and state tree fruit.
The vast majority of state foods—70 out of 110—have been named since 2000. Two came just this year, with the most recent being the Sandhill plum, the official state fruit of Kansas since April 12, 2022. Fourth- and fifth-grade students had started the process, and it sailed through the legislature (“with some representatives lightheartedly opposing the measure in favor of proposals by schools in their districts,” The Kansas Reflector noted).
Look through the list of recent foods and you’ll also note an uptick in the number that are not crops but dishes that require human preparation, like pumpkin pie (Illinois’s state pie), Lane cake (Alabama’s state dessert), peach cobbler (Texas’s state cobbler), and Smith Island cake (Maryland’s state dessert)—a signal, perhaps, of a growing appreciation for American regional foods and their potential as marketing tools for culinary tourism or general goodwill.
Yet controversies endure. In 2021, the Maine legislature considered and then rejected a proposal to name the lobster roll the state sandwich (someone pointed out it wasn’t actually invented there) and Connecticut’s House of Representatives passed a bill to name pizza the official state food, thanks in part to an endorsement from some guy from Barstool Sports, but it died in the state senate. More proposed state foods are sure to come in the next legislative session, along with more bragging and more loud disagreements. There are still plenty of politicians eager to celebrate their states through such designations and looking for opportunities to expand the menu.
“Any gourmet would recognize, you always start with the appetizer,” Rhode Island State Representative Joseph McNamara told the Associated Press after he filed his bill to make calamari the official state appetizer in 2013. “Who knows? We might go on to entrée next year.”
Further reading: I’ve honestly barely scratched the surface here and didn’t even look at the history of most foods listed on Wikipedia’s page of state foods. Go check it out and do some Googling and let me know what interesting things I’ve missed!
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Not an official state food, but Wisconsin and Iowa postmaters had a limburger cheese fight: https://www.neatorama.com/2010/09/27/the-limburger-cheese-war/
LBJ was right about non-Texas chili. And don't get me started about the so-called "gumbo" I've endured outside the borders of Louisiana!