Every State's Most Important Food Innovation
America’s long been a nation of innovators, from the restless tinkering of Ben Franklin to the Gilded Age showmanship of Thomas Edison to the obsession with comfort and sloth of whoever slapped sleeves on a blanket and called it a Snuggie. And speaking of deadly sins, American gluttony has also driven its fair share of creativity.
From never-before-conceived sandwich creations that swept the nation to game-changing fast-food chains to agricultural marvels, this is a state-by-state ode to the edible (and drinkable!) dynamos that have literally changed the shape of America (because we’re fatter now). Our increasingly overstuffed bellies thank you.
AlabamaWhite barbecue sauce
Barbecue sauce holds a precarious and little-regarded position in the world of barbecue. Many purists reject the use of the sauce, arguing (mostly correctly) that if the ‘cue is right and moist, it doesn’t need a sauce to cover its faults. The tomato- and mustard-based numbers popular in Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, and the Carolinas all play their part as a bit player in a big show. But only in the Yellowhammer State is that barbecue sauce the real damn star.
Thanks to Big Bob Gibson’s 1925 recipe, citizens of (mostly North) Alabama have been putting a mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, and pepper on the most boring of barbecue specialties (chicken) plus a bunch of other stuff, for nearly a hundred years. And let me tell you, friends: the fact that this sauce isn’t as popular as the shitty, thick, tomato-based junk you see in your condiment aisle is a damn national tragedy that changes today.
Alaska’s relatively brief statehood and late arrival to industrialization means a bit of a different landscape when it comes to indigenous foods (no, for the last time, Baked Alaska did not come from Alaska -- though read up on Eskimo ice cream if you want to learn about an... acquired taste). But Alaska’s seemingly limitless natural bounty makes a simpler edible delight feel more appropriate, anyway, and there’s a reason Alaskan king crabs are coveted the world over: crab meat is delicious if pesky to process, and king crabs are ginormous and therefore best positioned to provide real genuine hunks of impossibly delicious crab meat.
Were king crabs innovated by God? By evolution? Undoubtedly that can be settled with level-headedness and decorum in the comments section, but regardless, thank Alaska the next time you throw down for that all-you-can-eat crab legs special at your local steakhouse, or the next time you marathon Deadliest Catch because you’ve already seen that episode of House Hunters.
“BUT WE INVENTED THE CHIMICHANGA!” at least one person from Arizona is currently yelling, seeing our selection. And yes, weird people who call themselves burrito historians trace gross deep-fried burritos (aka chimichangas) back to the Tucson area in the 1920s, but they also found that “chivichangas” have been around in Mexico for much longer than that, so something about this doesn’t quite add up.
But you know what does add up? The fact that THE ENTIRE ARTISANAL PIZZA REVOLUTION started right in Arizona in 1994, thanks to a high school dropout from the Bronx named Chris Bianco. If not for his absolute desire to craft the perfect pizza, a desire that sent him to Italy for two years in the '90s, and the weird connection he felt upon visiting Arizona from NY, he could’ve just been another random pizzaiolo in NY, a drop in a bucket, and this thing would’ve never come true, and we’d all still be eating garbage '90s pizza. But no, Bianco put Arizona on the map as a big star in the pizza galaxy, and chefs saw that star, and followed it, and now you can basically be anywhere in the country, and a Verace Pizza Napoletana-qualified pizzeria is within an hour’s drive. Chris did that. Arizona did that. The chimichanga didn’t do shit.
Before Pinkberry and Tasti D-Lite and 1,000 other fro-yo slingers were jockeying to carve out space as the dairy methadone for America’s heroin-like ice cream addiction, there was Little Rock-founded TCBY (formerly This Can’t Be Yogurt, then shortened thanks to a lawsuit with another one of the game’s early players). The zeitgeist may have moved onto other buzzier new yogurt joints, but TCBY’s 35-year legacy of helping Americans trick themselves into thinking a bowl full of candy-topped soft serve is a “healthy” choice lives on to this day, along with hundreds of remaining TCBY locations.
If you’ve never seen a map of the United States, allow me to TLDR it for you: California is gigantic. And as a gigantic place with a temperate and varied climate, it grows a lot of things. And as a gigantic place with a temperate and varied climate growing a lot of things, plus four very major cities with their own significant food contributions, you can understand how this might be a troubling place to pick one item. Until you remember the avocado.
In the 1920s in Southern California, a mailman named Rudolph Hass bought avocado seedlings and planted them, and the avocado that was produced from said tree was unlike the typical Fuerte avocados popular at the time. It was bigger with a richer flavor, and seemed to produce year-round. Hass named it after himself and patented the tree. He began selling grafted seedlings from his tree, and the Hass avocado took off. And now it is everywhere. If you want artisanal toast that will look good using your Lo-Fi filter, you throw avocado on it. If you want a more delicious BLT with a cooler name, avocado goes right in there. If you want me to judge your burger order, add the avocado to it for a buck. Guacamole is basically an auto-order at any Mexican restaurant in the country. The avocado is nourishing lifeblood mainlined into the bloodstream of American foodstuffs. It is the most versatile, healthiest condiment ever. And it’s all thanks to a horticulturally obsessed mailman from California. American Dream, indeed.
Chipotle spawned so many imitators both in and out of the fast-casual Mexican space since getting its start in Denver in 1993 that “we want to be the Chipotle of (fill in the blank)” became something of a restaurant industry cliche. The fast-casual, assembly line is now the norm. Stay strong, Chipotle. You’ll always have a burrito-shaped space in our stomachs.
The Library of Congress verifies the claim by Louis’ Lunch that it was the originator of the hamburger sandwich, due to an impatient customer’s request for a lunch to go. Though other places, mostly in upstate NY, also make a claim to the original burger, we’ll throw our lot in with the Library of Congress. No Connecticut, no burgers. No burgers, and America just equals the southern part of Canada.
Delaware: first in ratifying The Constitution, last in… having any kind of distinguishing characteristics that make it stand out from the rest of the mid-Atlantic region. But dammit, it has Dogfish Head! It isn’t America’s first craft brewery. It isn’t the biggest. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any beer aficionado who won’t at least tip a cap to its influence and enduring brewing excellence. Simply put, a world without 90-Minute IPA would be a sadder world to live in.
We like to take (often well-deserved) shots at Florida around these parts, but give credit where credit is due. When you create a sandwich so distinct, so balanced, so enduring that people mistake its country of origin and assume it must be an enduring part of another nation’s culinary fabric, you’ve done something right. The true origins of the Cuban sandwich lie in early immigrant communities in Tampa and Key West, and the reasons behind it spreading quickly around Florida and, eventually, to the rest of the country, are clear.
It was on top of the “pork is incredible” thing before pig fetishization became chic, rocking both ham and roast pork, with melty Swiss to tie everything together and just the right hint of pickle and mustard to cut through all the richness held between Cuban bread. It spoke to the glory of the smashed sandwich before every damn corner coffee shop in America was rocking a panini press. It’s an old soul that was somehow inarguably ahead of its time, and it’s undeniably a part of the American sandwich canon. Well played, Florida. Well played indeed.
Every Southern-raised kid has that first memory of a drawl-laced “Welcome to Waffle House” greeting: after church in lace socks and patent shoes with grandparents, maybe a bit tipsy after a football game. Unlike other chains that have an automaton aura, each WaHo is gloriously the same, with slightly sticky, double-sided, laminated menus; a corner jukebox loaded with unexplainable themed songs; stained coffee mugs that are just a bit thicker than any mug you’ve held elsewhere; at least one well-worn regular at the counter; and impressively perky staff that, despite working incredibly long shifts on their feet, have the group personality of a grandmother greeting her family with a flour-covered apron, a fresh-baked pie, and a smile.
Did you spend this whole write-up throwing your crushed Coca-Cola Classic cans at your computer, wondering how I didn’t opt for the the international carbonated monolith? Well, go order one (vanilla diet, preferably, so you can consider how WaHo’s custom syrups improve the secret formula) along with your scattered, covered, peppered, chunked, double hash browns and then think about which brings you back to a long-lost meal with your family or first girlfriend or basketball team after you defeated Spring Garden to win the Regional Championship. But somehow, that waffle is what brings you home.
Between the malasadas, plate lunch, and shave ice, there are plenty of unique Hawaiian foods, but those tend to act like the people who beat up Kate Bosworth’s boyfriend in Blue Crush, and stay in the islands. Poke, on the other hand, is now turning into a damn national trend, with poke shops sprouting up all over the place. Don’t believe me? Go to your nearest neighborhood the NY Times has recently described as “formerly scruffy.” Look for a fast-casual shop with natural pine benches. Ask them what food they’re serving. If they don’t tell you the Hawaiian verb meaning “to slice or cut,” the entire construction of my argument will be revealed as a house of cards, and I will be forever shamed. But if they do tell you poke, get the ahi with fresh chilis and furikake.
IdahoThe Idaho potato
To be fair, Idaho didn’t even create the particular robust strain of Russet potato that proved to thrive so thoroughly in its soil. That credit goes to a New Englander named Luther Burbank (it’s a long, starchy story). But the fact remains: America LOVES potatoes. We find excuses to pair them with everything and consume them by the fried bagful despite knowing full well that it will eventually kill us. And without Idaho’s undeniable potato-growing prowess we wouldn’t have nearly enough of the versatile tuber to fulfill our ravenous needs. Oh man, now all we can think about is potatoes? Anyone have any cheese fries?
Truly, the Prairie State’s edible achievements are many. Chicago has its particular take on hot dogs and pizza, and there's also downstate-spawned Shake Shack forefather Steak ‘n Shake, along with the horseshoe sandwich (basically a big ol’ pile of meat and cheese fries over toast). But did you know that the humble brownie can trace its origins back to Chicago, specifically the historic Palmer House Hotel? Do you remember the last time you actually made brownies, then decided to lick the spatula after you finished bringing the batter together? Did you see the face of God? Do you want to live in a world without brownie sundaes? Are you tired of answering questions? Look, deep dish pizza will always have its proponents and detractors, but the chocolatey indulgence of the humble brownie is unassailable.
IndianaThe pork tenderloin sandwich
This German schnitzel-influenced delight is more of a Midwestern staple than a nationwide sensation, but man, certain segments of the Midwest get real fired up about them. Specifically, Iowa and Indiana regularly spar over who gets credit as the birthplace of this thing, but Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington is the most widely accepted home of the deliciously breaded & fried, oversized pork cutlet spilling out of an undersized bun. But if you’ve ever taken a bite of one of these beasts, you know it’s worth fighting over.
“The greatest thing since sliced bread” has been an overused cliche as long as anyone can remember. Man, sliced bread must be a really great thing! The machine that gave way to all of that sliced bread was invented and patented in Davenport, Iowa -- so that’s pretty great, as is not having a PB&J in your lunch box with wildly uneven slices because mom had too much of her “medicine” again last night when she was packing lunches.
Thanks to some rather disturbing investigative journalism in the form of the Upton Sinclair book The Jungle, Americans in the 1920s didn’t want to eat ground beef. But the White Castle originators in Wichita, Kansas created porcelain enamel restaurants with stainless steel interiors to evoke a clean feeling, and started touting 5-cent slider burgers for people on the go at lunch. This worked. And so the first fast-food restaurant was born.
In terms of innovation, you can take your pick: White Castle is credited with inventing hamburger buns, slider-sized mini burgers, and kitchen assembly lines. Was this a good thing for the overall health of the country? No, probably not. But is it a good thing for the needs of the average American, after they’ve had several alcoholic drinks and are in the process of texting their ex? Still no, but you get the point I’m trying to make, right?
Fantastic bourbon doesn’t HAVE to come from Kentucky in a strictly legal sense, but that doesn’t change that the vast majority of its best and brightest bottles continue to come from the Bluegrass State. It is America’s signature alcohol-related achievement, it makes everything from BBQ sauce to brownies better, and recent obsession over black-market rare bottles notwithstanding, there are still excellent bourbons that can be had quite cheaply. And please, don’t get all riled up talking about Hot Browns. That’s just a turkey and bacon sandwich someone was too lazy to finish making.
The Louisiana tradition of mixing tabasco or cayenne chili peppers with vinegar and salt and putting it on pretty much anything is a goddamn national treasure that’s been around since the time when Ulysses S. Grant was stumbling around the White House, smoking 20 cigars a day (swag). As you may’ve heard, another national treasure keeps it in her bag (swag). A deeper argument need not be made (swag?).
Technically, this thing started in Milford, Connecticut, in 1929 as a warm lobster sandwich with butter. But less technically, the Connecticut lobster roll is gross (yeah, we said it), and Maine should get credit for perfecting a previously imperfect product, first by fashioning a slightly different version of a hot dog roll, grilling it, and adding cold, delicious lobster and a little mayo. That version is the first version that the majority of the country knows, and therefore that is the version to be celebrated. But Mainers aren't batting 1.000 with their innovative culinary practices. After all, they also think it’s a good idea to call ham and American cheese sandwiches, “Italians.”
Crab cakes and football, that’s what Maryland does -- though to be honest you guys aren’t actually that great at football. Those crabs are legit though. Pass the Old Bay.
Name change be damned, it'll always be about the donuts. Of all of Mass’ culinary contributions (Fluff? Um, those candied baked beans you buy at the airport? Ken’s Steakhouse dressings?), the one the Bay State should be most proud of is championing a coffee shop that doesn’t need to substitute faux-Italian sizes to make its customers feel exotic. And also making donuts with a little handle on them, so you can dip them in that LARGE “coffee, regular” with basically an extra gallon of sugar and cream already inside because they know you don’t want the other guys from Chelmsford to see you throwing in all that cream/sugar before you go to the Arsenal Mall to buy new Sox caps from Lids. There’s a reason Casey Affleck has “America runs on Dunkin” tattooed to his face, friends.
OK, OK, calm down Michiganders. We come not to disparage the pasties of your Upper Peninsula, nor denigrate Detroit’s coney dogs, which -- let’s be real -- are just chili dogs. Oh, but you put mustard on them? CONGRATULATIONS! But, look, that’s not the point. The point is, say what you will about Domino’s Pizza, its influence on America's capacity to acquire large volumes of comically cheap pizza to feed hordes of horrible 12-year-olds at sleepovers is undeniable.
Domino’s didn’t invent pizza delivery, but it most assuredly promoted and popularized it like no other, even if the 30-minute guarantee went by the wayside thanks to concerns like “safety.” While we’re at it, an additional hat tip to Little Caesars for your Hot-N-Ready pies and your Crazy Bread. There’s a place in America for pizzas that boast artisanal cheeses and meticulously follow the Neapolitan pizza standards. There’s also a place for piping-hot utility pizza you can feed an army with for, like, $20. When it comes to the latter, you largely have Michigan to thank.
Instead of forcing us to eat smelt-stuffed herring, the Suspiciously Nice Nordics of Minnesota gave us something much more wonderful: a burger stuffed with melted cheese. And though it’s only gained real national prominence in intense burger circles, or amongst those who like to pick a side in the 5-8 Club vs. Matt’s Bar, it's a cheesy, beefy gift, especially when you look outside and see 178in of snow.
MississippiMississippi mud pie
Some people call this “dirt cake.” Those people are jerks who are somewhat accurate at describing what this delicious chocolate bomb looks like.
It’s hard to state the case that Missouri actually INVENTED burnt ends since they’re simply the end result of a properly cooked brisket (see, Texas). But Kansas City is without a doubt the region that cultivated and promoted them as the stand-alone delicacy they ought to be. Go to LC’s and get a whole damn sandwich full of them and you’ll understand. Also, apologies to St. Louis for its -- actually, screw it, nobody likes fried ravioli that much and Provel cheese makes dairy cows cry.
No one ever dared think to eat buffalo before Ted Turner. Wait. What? Native Americans you say?! Oh, right. Fine, the bison-as-food-source goes back way before states were a thing, but there are way, way more of them now (albeit mostly domestic) largely because of its popularization as a leaner, meaner protein alternative to beef. And Montana was very much at the forefront of that. So thanks buffalo -- sorry about nearly driving you to extinction just because we felt like it.
NebraskaThe reuben sandwich
When it comes to historical claims to this perennially underrated yet spectacularly reliable sandwich, you have New York on the one hand, making the case for the now defunct Reuben’s Delicatessen. On the other hand you have Omaha, which traces it back to Reuben Kulakofsky, a participant in a weekly poker game at a local hotel who created the sandwich only to see it take off in popularity after the hotel owner put it on its lunch menu. Now corned beef, rye bread, and sauerkraut all seem kind of New-Yorky, but you know what? Screw it! Nebraska gets this one, all right? Don’t you have enough New York?
Yes, the all-you-can-eat buffet existed before Vegas. But no one, NO ONE, made it more of an art form. No one charged you $100 and then dared you to eat 17 Alaskan crabs. No one had three-tier flowing chocolate fountains that’re also made from chocolate. No one looked askance if you put an entire entree portion of shrimp cocktail and dumped it on top of a baker’s dozen caviar-filled pancakes. Vegas buffets challenged you by removing the rules. You pay us, and you can have any food you want, at once, they shouted. And we heard them. Oh, how we’ve heard them.
New HampshireChocolate mice
Three words: Burdick. Chocolate. Mice. Before Burdick, Americans were depressed from eating boring-as-hell chocolates that definitely weren’t shaped like household pests. New Hampshire changed all of this.
It’s true! Everyone’s favorite chocolate with a thin candy shell was first produced in Clinton Hill. Of course, the idea was a ripoff of British Smarties (which are nothing like the American ones) that Forrest Mars Sr. (get it?) encountered during the Spanish Civil War, but hey, stealing something and saying you thought of it feels very Jersey, right? Either way, M&M’s almost make up for the abomination that is salt water taffy.
New MexicoGreen chile
You might be inclined to think that all those Hatch chiles that go into the incredibly piquant, flavorful green chile people in New Mexico put on basically everything are native to the area, but you’d be WAY wrong. Chiles only came to the region post-Columbus, and the chiles you so enjoy today are the results of painstaking research in the early 20th century at New Mexico State University meant to isolate varieties that would thrive in the arid climate there. So think about THAT next time you’re ladling a bunch of green chile over your nachos or fries or burger or whatever.
New YorkBuffalo wings
New York might seem like a hard pick, what with all the foods you associate with NYC. But really, has there ever been a more American, ubiquitous food innovation than Teressa Bellissimo’s idea to put Frank’s RedHot and butter on some deep-fried chicken wings they were going to throw away? Does America not go through millions of pounds of wings on a single Super Bowl day? Are they not the anchor item on any sports bar menu worth its weight in blue cheese and/or ranch, depending on where in the country you live? Could I ask more rhetorical questions as a device to get you to agree with my selection? At least one more, maybe? Yes?
North CarolinaPulled pork
Look, there are way too many regional variances within North Carolina in terms of sauce and preparation (how much vinegar, whole hog or part-of-hog, pulled or chopped, etc.) to make sweeping generalizations about the exact nature of the porcine innovation we owe it, but without question it’s one of America’s oldest BBQ traditions, and however you like that shoulder meat broken down and sauced, you can likely trace some of that porky wisdom back to the Tar Heel State.
North DakotaChocolate-covered potato chips
What, you thought we'd go with lutefisk? Nah. North Dakotan's didn't innovate it... they simply have to endure lazy internet writers' constant insistence that that's all they eat in the state. No, North Dakota's innovation is less "fermented fish" and more "sweet & savory stroke of genius." Calling out a chipper also seems like a lazy North Dakota joke, but they have less to do with jamming Steve Buscemi's leg in a piece of heavy machinery and more to do with coating thick-cut potato chips in chocolate. It's a simple move that many chip brands have adopted, but most trace the practice back to Carol Widman's Candy in Fargo. And with that, North Dakota finally got a leg up on South.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969, Wendy’s is one of America’s most important and innovative food chains, and not just because of what they’ve done for square hamburgers and the normalization of pigtailed ginger children. In the late ‘80s, Wendy’s introduced a 99-cent value menu, and they’re largely credited within the industry as being the first to pull out this genius marketing ploy that makes Americans think “well, if I only get five small things that cost a dollar, I’m making healthy choices, right?” But no joke, the true glory days of America’s past were the days when a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger could be had for under a buck. Our grandkids are gonna be blown away by that. And by the presence of baked potatoes.
OklahomaGirl Scout Cookies
Does an argument really need to made for something that America’s children sell door-to-door, or get their parents to guilt you into buying at your workplace via a somewhat cute video? Because you have a troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, to thank for the first documented Girl Scout Cookie fundraiser in 1917. Frozen Thin Mints for life.
With respect to weird ice cream and the humble marionberry -- the berry engineered at Oregon State, not the old mayor who loved crack -- Oregon's greatest contribution to the American culinary landscape is the humble tater tot. And not in the sense that we have hipsters to thank for the snack's relatively recent leap from school lunch trays to bars and restaurants, either (though Portland had a lot to do with that). The tots themselves were used as a way to utilized scraps of potatoes from the Ore-Ida factory back in the '30s, making Ore-Ida a forebear to the zero-waste movement. And lo and behold, the "Ore" part of "Ore-Ida" stands for Oregon, and the Beaver State city of Ontario is where the whole thing started. Lob that out next time you're munching totchos during a trivia night in Williamsburg.
We could have gotten cute here and lauded Pittsburgh's proclivity for French fry-filled sandwiches, and the charms of Hershey's chocolate will forever be a part of American life in the form of tiny balls of foil found in the washing machine lint trap after they were clandestinely pocketed from Kiss-filled candy dishes while no one was looking. But where were we? Oh yeah, CHEESESTEAKS.
Say what you will about Philly's less-lauded and arguably equally delicious roast pork, but this is arguably the godfather of regional American sandwiches. Before the food internet at large made such specialties so fetishized (hell, before the internet even existed), everyone intrinsically knew that if you were in Philly, you HAD to get a greasy, beefy, onion-y, Whiz-topped cheesesteak. You'll find them on menus around the country, some renditions better than others, but its perfect home is indisputably in Pennsylvania, and its place in the American sandwich canon is undeniable.
Rhode IslandDel’s Frozen Lemonade
Most people in Rhode Island remember three things in their life: their marriage, their first child’s birth, and their first sip of Del's Frozen Lemonade. You never had a chance, coffee milk.
South CarolinaBoiled peanuts
I mean, we could’ve chosen peaches, but that’s not exactly innovative, right? At least these mushy Southern snacks have some spice. Putting them in Coke may or may not be a positive development, though.
Look, chislic is basically low-rent kebabs, and it’s not exactly much of a thing outside South Dakota, but sometimes you gotta take what you can get, which we imagine is how most chislic gets sold.
TennesseeNashville hot chicken
Yes, we hear you Memphis, and no, this is in no way a shot at your indisputably fantastic barbecue scene. It’s just, look, hot chicken is continuing to have a moment,ok? And while Memphis ‘cue definitely has its defining characteristics, it's tough to pinpoint that one singular creation that makes you say “yep, thank God they started doing that” -- even though it’s possible no city has a way with ribs quite the way Memphis does. Actually, maybe there’s a case for Memphis ribs?
But… hot chicken is so crisp and juicy and spicy and no one does it like Nashville, and literally every chicken joint in the country right now is trying to turn out a version of it even if they don’t quite know what they’re doing. Ugh. This is hard. Can we pick both? No? Fine -- it’s hot chicken by a pickle slice, but it’s real close.
We could spend many words waxing poetic about the qualities of Texas brisket and its many fine purveyors, but put simply: Texas did not invent the cow, but Texas brisket most certainly perfected it.
OK -- it seems unlikely that Arctic Circle in Utah was really the first place to think of mixing mayo and ketchup, but whatever, it’s kinda all they got and they really, really like it, so next time a burger joint gives you a lil’ cup full of a creamy pink dipping substance, thank Utah and pretend you’ve never heard of Thousand Island dressing. (YES WE KNOW THEY’RE NOT EXACTLY THE SAME THING!)
VermontBen & Jerry’s
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield did not invent ice cream. They were not the first to incorporate other ingredients into ice cream. But without a doubt, these two dairy lovers changed the trajectory of America’s infatuation with one of its most comforting vices, with an “anything goes” attitude that made hunks of pretzel and cookie dough (which they DID invent, as far as ice cream goes, in their Burlington store) in your bowl feel totally normal. Bonus points for the subtle subversion of hooking hordes of conservative Midwestern housewives on Half Baked and Cherry Garcia.
You know how you’ll go into a restaurant these days and they’ll lavish you with meticulous explanations of their charcuterie options -- the breed of animal, its diet, its geographic provenance, etc.? Well, Virginia’s been hip to that game with its peanut-fed hogs since Smithfield Ham became a borderline brand name in the mid-1700s.
Europe can have its Prosciutto di Parma; the Smithfield Ham was America’s way of saying “Yeah, we can do incredible things with cured pork, too, OK, so the world had better look out!” We’re not saying ham singlehandedly gave America the confidence it took to overthrow British rule, but we’re also not NOT saying that. (Note: we’re referring to the grand tradition of country ham that took root in Virginia in this case, not necessarily the global pork giant Smithfield foods that is now owned by the Chinese. Although, highly economical sliced deli meats certainly have their place, too.)
Yeah yeah, the proliferation of Starbucks has reached a point that it’s hacky and cliched to even joke about its ubiquity. But it’s undeniable that Starbucks meteoric rise permanently changed the way Americans think about and consume coffee, and without those green-and-white cups making more Americans stop and think “Hey, maybe I should actually give a shit about the coffee I’m drinking?”, you probably don’t have a market for that third-wave coffee joint that’s making you a pour-over while telling you that Starbucks is the devil, so give credit where credit is due.
Washington DCThe half smoke
Washington D.C. doesn’t have much to call its own… but it has the half smoke! It’s... a sausage. It’s... kinda smokey. It’s... pretty good? Sigh.
West VirginiaPepperoni roll
Here’s the deal: Italians came to the coal mines back in the day. And they were like, “WTF are we supposed to eat?” And then they realized that if they stuffed pepperoni in a roll, it would still be gross by the time they got to the bottom of that mine, but at least it would kind of resemble a thing they used to eat and love. And so other people in West Virginia were like “You know what we should do? Sell these at gas stations.” And Italians were like, “Great, do whatever you want, I’m moving to New York.” And that pretty much gets us to current day.
WisconsinFried cheese curds
So, making any Wisconsin call that didn’t involve dairy just felt wrong (sorry, broasted chicken). Before fried foods became internet sensations and objects of state fair one-upmanship, Wisconsinites were just like “Guys, we got all these cheese curds lying around, wanna fry ‘em?” Then another guy was like “yep,” and then when they were done a third guy was like “These taste bland, should we grab that ranch dressing over there?” Then they all drank Schlitzes and talked about Bart Starr and ate fried orbs of squeaky cheese like they were SkinnyPop. The previous was a dramatization, but it’s probably pretty close to how it went down.
All right fine, they MAY have been about 20 years past Taco Bell when it comes to the whole “Americanized fast-food version of what sort of resembles Mexican food” thing, and Potatoes Oles MAY just be seasoned tater tots, and they MAY arguably be most known for a 2006 E. Coli outbreak, but let’s put that aside for a second, OK? A Cheyenne, Wyoming, taco stand that started in 1969 now has 400-plus locations in 27 states, proving that no matter where you get started, if you make food people wanna keep eating, you can make it big.
Matt Lynch is Thrillist's Executive Editor and wants South Dakota to have an innovative food so badly. Follow his congressional run in SD @MLynchChi.
Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's National Writer-at-Large and feels jaded re: South Dakota innovation. Venmo his money to create attack ads against Lynch @KAlexander03.