When it comes to official state mottos, we all know that New Hampshirites “Live Free or Die.” Oklahomans claim “Oklahoma!” as their state song, and Georgians proudly sing “Georgia on My Mind.” But when it comes to state foods, the list gets pretty esoteric. Were you aware, for example, that New York has a state muffin? (It’s an apple one). Or that Texas has an official native chili pepper in the fiery chiltepin? How about the fact that Utah’s state food is the sugar beet?
The world of official state foods is an intriguing one, full of obvious choices (orange juice is Florida’s state beverage) and some real puzzlers (Jell-O is Utah’s state snack). Choosing symbols to represent a state is by no means a new development. Even the 13 colonies each had their own flag, which often had state mottos and official crests worked into the designs. But states didn’t start branching out into official flowers, minerals and foods until the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Women’s groups at the fair decided to festoon their booths with flowers that represented their home states. The groups banded together to create a “National Garland of Flowers” that could represent the entire country, with the flowers to be voted upon by each state’s inhabitants. Following the exhibition, most states took the idea back to their legislatures, where they voted on the first official state flowers. After that, it was open season on state symbols. Official birds, mammals and minerals appeared by the 1940s. State symbols were an easy way to promote local tourism, and give an economic shot in the arm to industries in need of help.
The first state foods appeared in the mid 1960s. New Mexico was one of the first to proclaim both chilis and refried beans as their state vegetables in 1965. Florida’s orange juice was official in 1967. But the glory days of state foods has definitely come in recent years, with more and more states adopting official snacks, pies and berries. Texas tops the list with a whopping 10 state foods; they even have a state cooking implement in the cast iron Dutch oven. Louisiana isn’t far behind with 8, including the state meat pie (the Natchitoches, a hand pie similar to an empanada) and the state donut (the beignet of New Orleans). Oddly enough, California, a state known for its foodies, is one of the 12 states with no state foods at all.
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Utah’s state snack, Jell-O is one of the better state food stories of the modern era. In 2001, with the Winter Olympics looming, lawmakers drafted a bill to make Jell-O the official snack. More Jell-O is consumed in Utah per capita than any other state, and the area was nicknamed “The Jell-O Belt” due to the stereotype that Mormon families have a particular affinity for the stuff. Jell-O spokesman Bill Cosby himself even appeared before the legislature to argue that the dessert was a family treat, and that Utah was all about family. The bill passed, and the following year a collectable Olympic pin was made to celebrate the snack. It quickly became the hit of the Games.