Signature foods in every state

Written by:
August 19, 2020
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Signature foods in every state

Every U.S. state can claim a signature dish that tradition has handed down, residents have perfected, and visitors seek out. A trip to Maine would scarcely be complete without sampling a lobster roll, and a journey through the Midwest is more than likely to feature a stop for a Chicago deep-dish pizza.

The trouble is, most states have a cornucopia of foods to hold up as their iconic dishes, opening up endless opportunities for debate and disagreement.

New York’s signature food might be the bagel, especially one smeared with cream cheese and topped with lox, but what about thin-crust pizza, spicy buffalo wings, and zesty Manhattan clam chowder? In Maryland, crab cakes might take center stage, but steamed blue crabs, she-crab soup, and fried soft-shell crabs all are legitimate contenders. In Mississippi, shrimp and grits and rich chocolatey mud pie are as iconic as is the crispy, meaty fried catfish.

In plenty of states, stand-out dishes materialize from the plentiful crops, like Alabama’s almonds, Georgia’s peaches, Wisconsin’s famed cheese production, and Wyoming’s hunting culture and cattle industry, giving us nut-laden cake, fruit cobbler, fresh curds, and elk and beef jerky.

Some dishes travel, like Alaska’s king crab, Maine’s lobster rolls, and Florida’s Key lime pie, especially in modern times. Other dishes like chocolate gravy, bierocks, and the Juicy Lucy seem to have stayed put. Immigrants are to thank for some of the tastiest specialties like jibaritos in Chicago, runzas in Nebraska, knoephla soup in North Dakota, and chislic in neighboring South Dakota.

More than a few dishes are classically uncomplicated, as though their simplicity gives them appeal and staying power, like Indiana’s sugar cream pie, Pennsylvania’s shoofly pie, boiled dinners in New Hampshire, and buckeye candy in Ohio.

None of the dishes will help anyone shed any pounds or take inches off the waistline, nor should they. Signature dishes are ones to be sought out, savored, and remembered.

Stacker compiled a list of signature dishes in each U.S. state, consulting local newspapers, histories, and recipe collections. It’s guaranteed to be mouthwatering and not at all scientific.

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Alabama: Alabama lane cake

Alabama Lane Cake is a sweet concoction of white sponge cake, pecans, and bourbon-soaked raisins, made for celebratory occasions. It’s the state’s official dessert and gets a mention in Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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Alaska: King crab

Alaskan king crab is the state’s renowned delicacy. Aficionados say the best is found on the docks in Juneau, Alaska, at Tracy’s King Crab Shack.

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Arizona: Chimichangas

As the story goes, chimichangas were accidentally invented when a cook dropped a burrito into hot fat, and the name was concocted as well. Today, chimis—flour tortillas stuffed with meat, vegetables, beans, and cheese, and deep-fat fried to a golden crisp—are a state signature.

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Arkansas: Chocolate gravy

Chocolate gravy is not likely to be found outside Arkansas, but in the Ozark Mountains especially, it is iconic. The combination of chocolate sauce served on top of buttery hot biscuits first became popular during the Civil War. The landmark Ozark Cafe in Jasper, Arkansas, is the preferred destination for tasting the specialty.

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California: Sourdough bread

California has so much competition for its special food—avocados, almonds, Cobb salad, even California sushi rolls. But the honor goes to sourdough bread, made by bakers who popularized a distinctive starter during the Gold Rush. The place to get the best sourdough bread, it is claimed, is Boudin, San Francisco’s oldest bakery. The mascot of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers is none other than Sourdough Sam.

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Colorado: Rocky Mountain oysters

Colorado’s unique dish has to be Rocky Mountain oysters, which are not oysters at all. They are bull or bison testicles, dipped in batter or breaded, then fried. They are considered a great bar snack with one of the state’s great beer offerings.

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Connecticut: Hot lobster rolls

Hot lobster rolls are the dish to order in Connecticut. Unlike chilled lobster salad rolls found elsewhere in New England, this speciality was invented in Milford, Connecticut, in the 1920s. It’s warmed lobster, topped with melted butter, on a toasted bun.

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Delaware: Dilly crab dip

Delaware’s trademark dish is dilly crab dip. It’s easy to make and takes advantage of the Atlantic coast’s crab harvest. Hot or cold, it is a mix of flaked crab meat, dried dill, mayonnaise, and sour cream, served on crackers.

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Florida: Key lime pie

Key lime pie originated in the Florida Keys and has become the state’s signature treat. The pale yellow filling is made from key limes and condensed milk, and the crust is typically graham cracker. Legend has it that the pie was invented in Key West in the 1890s by a local cook who combined sweetened milk with the juice of key limes, which were plentiful on the island.

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Georgia: Peach cobbler

Although peanuts and Brunswick stew might be Georgia favorites, peach cobbler wins as the state’s signature dish. With more than 40 commercial varieties, Georgia produces about 2.6 million bushels of peaches each year. A renowned spot to taste peach cobbler is the iconic Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood.

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Hawaii: Poi

The native signature Hawaiian dish of poi is made from taro root, a staple dating back to the islands’ earliest residents. The root is baked or steamed, then mashed, and the resulting purple paste is served with fish, pork, and other Pacific delicacies.

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Idaho: Finger steaks

Idaho grows a lot of potatoes, but finger steaks take center stage as the state’s signature dish and are not to be missed. The finger-length strips of beef are breaded or battered and fried, and served with dipping sauce. Credit for their invention goes to Mylo Bee, a meat cutter, chef, and the proprietor of Mylo’s Torch Lounge in Boise in the 1950s.

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Illinois: Chicago deep dish pizza

Downstaters in Illinois may disagree, but Illinois’ signature dish has to be Chicago deep dish pizza. Invented in the 1940s, it is pizza like no other—rich with cheese and tomato sauce and usually eaten with a fork and knife. Recent news reports found visitors to Chicago defying the state’s 14-day coronavirus quarantine to dine on deep dish pizza.

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Indiana: Sugar cream pie

Mouthwatering sugar cream pie is a favorite in Indiana, where it is said to have arrived in the early 1800s with Quaker settlers from North Carolina. It is sometimes called Hoosier pie or, when times are tough, desperation pie, as its ingredients are not fancy. The best may be found at Wick’s Pies in Winchester, where the founder originally delivered pies from his 1934 Buick Sedan.

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Iowa: Breaded pork tenderloin

Breaded pork tenderloin is the outstanding dish in Iowa. The recipe traces back to the family-owned B&B Grocery on Des Moines, Iowa’s south side. The Iowa Pork Producers Association holds a Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin Contest every year. Last year’s competition drew 470 restaurants.

 

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Kansas: Bierocks

In Kansas, don’t miss the state’s delicious bierocks, pastry stuffed with meat, cabbage, and onions. According to food lore, they were originally brought to Kansas by Mennonite pioneers and then made as lunches for farmworkers to carry with them to the fields. Today they are the specialty at M & M Bierock, a drive-thru restaurant in Wichita.

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Kentucky: Bourbon balls

Kentucky produces plenty of bourbon, so bourbon balls are a fitting signature food. They were first created in the 1930s by Ruth Booe, a candymaker at Rebecca Ruth Candies in Frankfort, who combined bourbon and chocolate in a secret recipe.

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Louisiana: Po’boy sandwich

So many delicious dishes are served in Louisiana that deserve mention, but the po’boy sandwich is king. It’s French bread heaped with fried oysters or shrimp or maybe catfish, dressed with lettuce, pickles, mayonnaise, and hot sauce. According to local legend, po’boys emerged during a 1929 streetcar strike when a New Orleans restaurant concocted a hearty sandwich to feed striking workers for free.

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Maine: Lobster rolls

In Maine, lobsters are a mainstay and a $500 million-a-year industry. The state’s signature lobster rolls are served chilled, tossed with mayonnaise, and served on a split bun. They are popular with visitors to the seaside state who stop and buy them at roadside lobster shacks.

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Maryland: Crab cakes

Maryland offers many ways to eat its delicious crabs, but crab cakes rise to the top. One of the first recipes in print for crab cakes appeared in the 1930s in a cookbook compiled for the World Fair in New York. They traditionally are made with lump crab meat, bread crumbs, mayonnaise, and seasoning, and fried to a golden crisp.

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Massachusetts: New England clam chowder

Nothing really rivals New England clam chowder as the signature dish of Massachusetts. The best chowder is creamy, a bit salty, and heaped with corn, celery, and clams fresh from the bay. It’s topped with chives and served with oyster crackers.

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Michigan: Mackinac Island fudge

Visitors to Michigan’s Mackinac Island can satisfy their sweet tooth with its famous fudge. It’s been a specialty on the scenic island for more than a century. More than a dozen local candy stores cook up some 10,000 pounds of fudge a day at peak season.

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Minnesota: Juicy Lucy

Amid the blueberries, Swedish meatballs, and other Minnesota favorites, the Juicy Lucy, or “Jucy Lucy,” as it’s often spelled, stands out. It’s a bit like an inside-out cheeseburger, with the cheese inside two beef patties, first created in Minneapolis. The melted cheese can be dangerously hot, and the sandwich is extremely messy—and worth the trouble.

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Mississippi: Fried catfish

Fried catfish takes the spotlight as Mississippi’s best-known dish. It’s on the menu at countless eateries across the state, likely accompanied by hush puppies and turnip greens. Mississippi is the country’s largest producer of catfish, an industry critical to the state’s economy.

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Missouri: Toasted ravioli

The exact origins are under debate, but at some point, someone in St. Louis dropped ravioli into hot oil, and toasted ravioli was born. It might be stuffed with spinach, beef, or cheese, and it’s sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Locals call them T-ravs.

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Montana: Huckleberries

Huckleberries are a treasure in Montana and deserve to be the state’s signature dish. They’re made into jam, pies, muffins, cobbler, pancakes, syrup, beer, martinis, and more. An annual Huckleberry Festival is held in Trout Creek, Montana, with pancake breakfasts and pie-eating contests.

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Nebraska: Runzas

Nebraskans love runzas, warm pastry pockets stuffed with ground beef, cabbage, and onions. The runza of today is attributed to a German immigrant named Sally Brening Everett whose family opened a food stand in Lincoln, Nebraska. Runzas are popular for snacking in the stands during chilly fall football games. Closely related are bierocks, popular in neighboring Kansas.

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Nevada: Shrimp cocktail

Jokes abound that the hotel buffet should be Nevada’s signature dish, but in fact the honor goes to shrimp cocktail. The Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, the oldest in Las Vegas, gets credit for introducing the shrimp cocktail to diners in 1959.

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New Hampshire: Boiled dinner

In New Hampshire, the most distinctive dish is arguably the boiled dinner, which tastes far better than its somewhat bland name. A boiled dinner is typically corned beef brisket or ham, cooked with an assortment of root vegetables like turnips and rutabaga, and some cabbage. It’s simple, hearty, and comforting.

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New Jersey: Pork roll sandwich

The signature dish for New Jersey is the pork roll sandwich, which includes egg and cheese on a hard roll. The meat is processed with spices and sugar and smoked. It’s called Taylor ham in northern New Jersey and pork roll in southern New Jersey. Debate over its name—useful for determining which part of the state someone comes from—is never-ending.

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New Mexico: Frito pie

No dish is quite so distinctive in New Mexico as Frito pie. It’s served in a bag of corn chips that has been sliced open and heaped with ground beef, chiles, beans, diced onions, cheese, and lettuce. It is said to have originated at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the 1960s. It’s served all around New Mexico, from food trucks to street fairs and school cafeterias. Higher-end venues serve it on actual plates rather than using the handy chip package.

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New York: Bagels

Bagels are a New York staple—plain, toasted, smeared with cream cheese or piled with salty pieces of lox. They are boiled and then baked, and some people argue the best ones must be made with New York City water. Bagels might be plain, sesame, poppy seed, salt, or onion, and an everything bagel has it all.

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North Carolina: Sweet potato pie

Sweet potato pie is the tasty signature dish of North Carolina, which happens to grow more sweet potatoes than any other state. The dessert is often compared to pumpkin pie, but sweet potato pie is lighter and less creamy, and fans would argue it is far superior.

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North Dakota: Knoephla soup

Thick and creamy knoephla soup can warm up the coldest nights on the North Dakota prairie. A dish handed down from German Russian immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s to homestead in North Dakota, knoephla soup is laden with dumplings, potatoes, carrots, and celery.

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Ohio: Buckeye candy

Buckeye candy is Ohio’s sweet signature treat of peanut butter dipped in chocolate, so named for its resemblance to the nuts of a buckeye tree. An Ohio Buckeye Candy Trail has been designed with stops at 31 shops across the state that make the delicacy.

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Oklahoma: Fried pies

Fried pies are Oklahoma’s quintessential food, originally made at a pie shop in the state’s Arbuckle Mountains. They are typically deep-fat fried pastry with cherry, apple, apricot, or maybe chocolate filling. Breakfast versions are filled with eggs, bacon, and cheese.

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Oregon: Dungeness crab

Oregon’s signature Dungeness crab is harvested along hundreds of miles of the state’s rugged Pacific coast. It is one of the meatiest types of crab, with almost 25% meat content, so a 2-pound crab would likely yield 8-ounces of meat. The flavor is delicate and slightly sweet.

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Pennsylvania: Shoofly pie

Shoofly pie is a traditional dish of the Pennsylvania Dutch, with a noticeable name. Its crust is buttery, and the filling is made of molasses, shortening, and egg, topped with sweetened crumbs. Variations flavor the filling with coffee or the topping with cinnamon. Most agree that its name is derived from the flies drawn to the sticky molasses as the rich pies were cooling.

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Rhode Island: Fried clams

Fried clams are Rhode Island’s beloved delicacy, found in the many clam shacks that dot the waterfront state. Clam strips and bellies are soaked in milk, dipped in flour, and deep-fried in hot oil.

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South Carolina: Frogmore stew

Frogmore stew sums up all that is good about South Carolina food, and it has nothing to do with frogs. It simply originated in the low country fishing town of Frogmore, and it’s also known as Beaufort stew or low country boil. It’s a one-pot meal of shrimp, corn on the cob, sausage, and potatoes, seasoned with beer and hot sauce.

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South Dakota: Chislic

Savory chislic can be considered South Dakota’s trademark dish. It consists of cubes of meat, sometimes beef or mutton or venison, on a stick, that are grilled or deep-fat fried and served with dipping sauces and crackers. The recipe arrived with German-Russian immigrants who settled in South Dakota. The town of Freeman holds an annual State Chislic Festival.

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Tennessee: Banana pudding

Banana pudding is a Southern staple, but fans might argue that Tennessee’s is the best. It is made with pudding, bananas, condensed milk, and vanilla wafer cookies. Centerville, Tennessee, southwest of Nashville, holds a yearly national banana pudding festival and cook-off, where pudding cooks compete for prizes.

 

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Texas: Barbecue

Many states make great barbecue, but Texas barbecue is in a league of its own. The best-known Texas barbecue uses a dry rub and the meat is smoked for several hours, but variations marinate the meat in sweet sauce. Barbecue in South Texas is heavily influenced by Mexican flavors and is called barbacoa.

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Utah: Funeral potatoes

Funeral potatoes, despite their somber name, are a signature crowd-pleaser in Utah. They are made with canned soup and cheese and topped with crushed corn flakes. They are so named because Mormon families would serve the dish at large gatherings following a funeral.

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Vermont: Maple syrup

Maple sugar production is critical to Vermont’s economy and its culture, and maple syrup deserves to be the centerpiece of the state’s culinary specialties. Native Americans tapped maple trees for sap, and today the state produces more than 2 million gallons of syrup a year.

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Virginia: Peanuts

Virginia peanuts are the state’s iconic food. They are the biggest and crunchiest of the four peanut types grown in the United States. Virginia peanuts are the variety roasted and sold at ballparks and stadiums, unlike the smaller and more uniform Runner peanuts used largely in making peanut butter.

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Washington: Geoducks

Washington’s unique geoducks are giant clams. They are dug from deep in the sand of the Puget Sound and weigh up to 10 pounds. The briny delicacy is often served raw and thinly sliced with soy sauce and lemon.

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West Virginia: Pepperoni rolls

Pepperoni rolls are West Virginia’s state food. The soft white dough filled with spicy meat was first created by an Italian baker around 1930 as a tasty meal for coal miners to carry underground. More than one annual festival in West Virginia celebrates the iconic dish.

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Wisconsin: Cheese curds

Cheese curds are a distinctly Wisconsin speciality that is a byproduct of cheese making. Most cheese curds in Wisconsin are cheddar cheese. Fresh curds are firm, almost springy, and squeak when you eat them. They're best eaten within 12 hours after they're produced—if they've lost the squeak they're too old. Restaurants often serve them fried. Oct. 15 is National Cheese Curd Day.

 

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Wyoming: Jerky

Wyoming is known for its fresh jerky of bison, beef, elk, and other game. It is tender, not tough, and it has far fewer preservatives than commercially produced varieties. It’s sold in smokehouses, local stores, and at roadside stands.

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