What are the United States' best regional foodstuffs? Its worst? These are the questions that bedevil the mind of man—but no longer! For here, we have ranked them. Rigorously scientific (not), ardently researched (nope), and scrupulously fair (not even a little bit): this is the Great American Menu!
Each state (plus the District of Columbia) gets one, and only one, signature foodstuff. And we selected actual food preparations; no state gets credit merely for being the geographic location where a certain edible flora or fauna happens to grow or swim or graze. But enough of that bullshit. On to the rankings! (For a full-size version of Jim Cooke's map, click here.)
1. Chicago-style deep-dish pizza (Illinois)
Man is mortal. He frolics upon the grass of life for but a short season, and then is snatched back to the inanimate dirt of his origin. The Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, America's greatest regional foodstuff—all those toppings, good God so much cheese and meat, I can hear my heartbeat, this can't be right, it sounds like a goddamn chainsaw, can that be right?—will greatly hasten that day's arrival, but it will also fill at least a little part of at least one of those days with a transcendent, mind-boggling, outrageously indulgent sensory experience. This is the best thing any food can do, and certainly far beyond the capabilities of [stares daggers at New York] a sheet of soggy cardboard with a flap of waxy melted cheese stretched across it.
2. Shrimp and grits (South Carolina)
Shrimp. Grits. Tasty, satisfying, authentically South Carolinian. Perfect.
3. Mission-style burrito (California)
The Mission-style burrito is especially great because, nowadays, you don't have to go all the way to California to get a good one. In fact, you can even leave California at 125 miles per hour, screaming and crying because your organ systems are rightly rejecting the state of California like a grafted-on walrus tail because California is awful, and still get a tasty Mission-style burrito pretty much wherever you end up! This is because a Mission-style burrito is just a really fuggin' large burrito with extra rice and (figurative) shit in it. Mmmmmmmm.
4. Crab cake (Maryland)
As we've established (here, here, and here), blue crab—particularly the Chesapeake blue crab—is the best of all ingestibles. However, the Maryland crab cake ranks fourth on this list, simply because so many of the various foodstuffs calling themselves crab cakes are really just mildly crab-flavored bread wads for ninnies, which are nonetheless priced as though they contain some quantity of actual by-God crabmeat measurable in units larger than the zeptogram. This means that the best way to obtain a genuine crabcake, rather than an OldBayseasoningandcrushedcrackerscake, is to make one at home—and, so long as you can find yourself a tub of crabmeat to work with, you don't have to be anywhere near Maryland to do that. (That's a good thing. Maryland drivers. Holy shit.)
5. Peach pie/cobbler (Georgia)
Peaches are good. Pie crust and/or biscuit dough are/is good. Good on ya, Georgia.
6. Gumbo (Louisiana)
Yeah, yeah, Louisiana also has the po' boy and the beignet, but really, those are New Orleans foods, and New Orleans already thinks more than highly enough of itself. Besides, neither of those is as tasty as Creole gumbo, which, factually, is the sole credible argument for not sinking that state into the Gulf of Mexico.
7. Key lime pie (Florida)
But what about the Cuban sandwich?!?!?!?! First of all, there's some controversy about the Cuban sandwich's origins: Either it is from Cuba, in which case it is Cuba's sandwich and not Florida's, or it is from Tampa, in which case it is not a Cuban sandwich and has a dumb name, in which case it sucks because things from Tampa suck because Tampa sucks. In any case it is not as definitively Floridian as Key lime pie, which originated in Florida and is made with ingredients—Key limes—that are native to Florida and nowhere else. (It also doesn't taste as good as Key lime pie. So there.) Anyway Key lime pie is very good and I don't know how we wound up talking about the Cuban sandwich this whole time so let's just move on.
8. Fried green tomatoes (Alabama)
... at the Whistle Stop Cafe, yawl! There is nothing to say about fried green tomatoes. They taste very good and you should eat some.
9. Stacked enchilada with green chile (New Mexico)
This is really, really fucking tasty. It loses some nonexistent points, though, for the notion that you can just leave the tortillas unrolled and pretend you've created a new foodstuff. That's horseshit, New Mexico. Horse. Shit.
10. Marionberry pie (Oregon)
Mmmmmmm, pie. Oh man. Nobody tell any Oregonians how high their state food is ranked, though. They can't fit any more self-congratulation into their busy schedules.
11. Hot wieners (Rhode Island)
I'm not gonna lie here. The name is a big reason Rhode Island's signature food is ranked so high. It's a tasty hot dog, too.
12. Burgoo (Kentucky)
Kentucky's signature food, a whatever-you-got stew that never tastes the same twice, gets a million imaginary bonus points for its wonderful communal nature: People just bring whatever ingredients they can, and everybody puts what they've got into the stew, and out comes burgoo, and that is just fucking beautiful, even though in reality probably 78 percent of its ingredients were scraped off I-64 with a snow shovel.
13. Pulled pork barbecue (North Carolina)
Pulled pork is more reliably tasty than burgoo—that is to say, there's virtually zero chance of it containing a fistful of raccoon fur—but a lot less wonderful. Science.
14. New England clam chowder (Massachusetts)
Demerits for New England.
T-15. Kansas City-style ribs (Missouri)
T-15. Memphis-style ribs (Tennessee)
For real, they're the same shit. But hey, let's fight about it!
17. West Virginia slaw dog (West Virginia)
This is a hot dog with a chili-like meat sauce, mustard, and coleslaw on it. (Sometimes it has chopped onions on it, too.) Which, yeah, you can get variations of that pretty much anywhere, but West Virginians are serious about the coleslaw part. It's tasty. Like so much else in its home state, it is also low-grade, disreputable, and makes you feel kinda sad and gross if you think about it for too long.
18. Chimichanga (Arizona)
Somebody dropped a burrito into a deep-fryer and out came Arizona's signature food, which no one in Arizona eats, because half the people in Arizona are too old for solid foods, and the rest are on the run from white-supremacist paramilitary border militias.
19. Frozen custard (Delaware)
Suggested advertising language for your frozen custard shop: Frozen custard! It's just like ice cream, only not particularly significantly unlike it, and only preferable if you grew up with it! Bonus points for the fact that ice cream is yummy; demerits for just being ice cream with some egg in it.
20. Texas-style barbecue brisket (Texas)
Beyond the smoky tastiness of all barbecue, the virtues of the Texas-style barbecue brisket are as follows: It is very large. The end.
21. Fried okra (Oklahoma)
They both start with O-K, and they are both never better than that.
22. New York-style pizza (New York)
By rough estimate, there are 900 trillion pizza joints per person in New York City. Somehow, within this competitive environment, not a one of the purveyors of "New York Pizza" has yet considered the wild and crazy idea of maybe trying to do something—anything!—interesting with its pizza. Here is a comically large, thin wedge of dough with some indifferent, rubbery cheese smeared across it, and maybe a few greasy F-grade variants of the same bullshit toppings you can get on your lousy DiGiorno back in friggin' Topeka. Oooh, it's so New Yorky! In that it is overpriced and happy to coast along on a long-since-hollowed-out myth of Big Apple authenticity, just like everything else in this giant, bad-smelling amusement park for rich white people! New York pizza isn't even a genuine pizza genre. It's just lousy, half-assed pizza. Papa John's with a chip on its shoulder.
23. Hot Hawaiian breakfast (Hawaii)
This is Spam, eggs, and rice. Tastes like authentic cargo cult!
24. Lobster roll (Maine)
Here is a list of accoutrements cooked lobster meat does not need:
2) Anything else
Only Maine could turn lobster into a goddamn hot dog.
25. Bull testicles (Montana)
Oddly, bull testicles come in so low on the list not because of ew, cow nads!!1! (seriously, the weirdest thing about eating bull testicles is the bizarre interspecies gay panic—"I don't put no balls in this-a-here mouth!"—they arouse in the food-scared weenie population), but because, eh, they're just not all that exciting. What else you got, Montana? Come back with, like, eyeball pie or something. Cow-snot poppers. Braised asshole. Something really challenging. Welcome to Jeb's Montana Steakhouse! Try the heifer surprise: She gives birth right into your open mouth!
26. Fried catfish (Arkansas)
Fried catfish is pretty tasty, which is no small triumph, since catfish are pretty fuggin' grody. Still: Would you order the fried catfish off the Great American Menu? No. You would not. It would sit there on the menu forever, and you'd pass it over a million times—sometimes even in favor of certainly less pleasant-tasting but more adventurous stuff—and then you'd hear somebody at an adjacent table order it, and you'd go, "Oh, they have fried catfish here? Huh. I never noticed. Maybe I'll try that next time." And then you'd go right back to forgetting it existed, just like you do with Arkansas.
27. Maple syrup (Vermont)
Maple syrup is plenty tasty, but, c'mon. It's tree-snot reduction. Try harder, Vermont.
28. Scrapple (Pennsylvania)
But the cheesesteak mer m'mer Phiwwy cheesesteak mer! Shut it. The famous grease-and-garbage sandwich belongs to the city of Philadelphia, which A) is the worst place on Earth, and B) doesn't come close to representing the entire state of Pennsylvania. In a given day, 500 times as many Pennsylvanians are scraping possums off the motorway to add volume to their scrapple as are standing in line with the tourists in the Junior Varsity Metropolis to have a bucket of Cheez Whiz dumped onto a fistful of thinly sliced sewer rat. Your state food is this salty, greasy, gray, abjectly horrifying pig-rectum-mash, and, fuck you, it is delicious.
(Also, a 9-year-old in her parents' kitchen could make a tastier cheesesteak in 10 minutes than any to be found in Philadelphia. Thhhppbbpbpbppbbp.)
29. Corndog (Iowa)
Who doesn't love a corndog? Nobody, that's who, and also idiots. On the other hand, when a region's entire concept of cuisine is to take ordinary foodstuffs (hot dogs, brownies, fucking honey), dunk them in batter, mount them on a stick, and deep-fry them, the successes (corndogs) tend to be shadowed somewhat by the excesses (deep-fried Snickers bars), the horrors (chocolate-covered deep-fried cheesecake), the oh-fuck-this-has-to-be-some-kind-of-goofy-Iowa-troll-job jobs (fucking deep-fried honey), and the lingering suspicion that Midwesterners suffer from a congenital lack of tastebuds.
30. Cedar-plank salmon (Washington)
I mean, it's salmon. Whoop-de-fuckin'-do. I like mine with extra board.
31. Cowboy cookies (Colorado)
The cowboy cookie is a chocolate-chip cookie to which someone wisely added rolled oats and shredded coconut, and to which someone else very stupidly added chopped pecans even though pecans are shitty. Neither pecans nor coconuts nor oats come from Colorado. Nor does chocolate. Nor do cowboys, really. You know what does come from Colorado? Confused looks and shrugged shoulders when you ask people what their state's signature foodstuff is. This is because, at any given time, 102 percent of the people in Colorado are vacationing Californians in bubble-vests and hiking boots. Real Colorado-types (Coloradans? Coloroadies? Colorectal cancers?) eat snow, and don't exist.
32. Mud pie (Mississippi)
This is essentially a pile of brownie dough floating in a gallon of chocolate syrup. It is delicious. Let's take this moment to remember that Mississippi leads the nation in adult diabetes.
33. Bratwurst (Wisconsin)
The bratwurst is among the more boring and dumb tube meats, even before you penalize it for being a pillar of the beers, brats, and bros! triad of meathead tailgating culture. The authentic-replica-Bryan-Bulaga-jersey set like bratwurst because they're less interested in tasty food than in a large meat comma they can use to divide alcohol-abuse clauses. Be honest: Would you rather have another boring bratwurst, or a hot Italian sausage with sautéed peppers and onions? Or a grilled kielbasa with a pickle spear, sauerkraut, and grainy mustard? Exactly. Shut up.
34. Virginia ham (Virginia)
Truthfully, nobody in Virginia gives a shit about Virginia ham, which is just another friggin' ham, only with 900 times as much salt as all the other hams, which are already pretty fuggin' salty. It's not like Virginia is any hammier than any other state, really. In fact, it's probably less into ham than most of its Southern brethren. The favorite foodstuff of Northern Virginia is the gluten-free white-soy-chocolate-macadamia-nut biscotti at every insufferable chain coffee joint in the world; in southern Virginia, the most popular thing to cook, by far, is a large wooden cross.
35. Fried pork tenderloin sandwich (Indiana)
This is a crispy chicken sandwich, only with a big, chewy sheaf of salty pig in place of the juicy, marinated chicken breast. It is neither particularly interesting nor particularly original. It is the signature food of Indiana, which, of course it is.
36. Half-smoke (District of Columbia)
For those not familiar with the culture of our nation's capital, the half-smoke is a hot dog. Yes, it is. Sometimes it can be half beef and half pork; sometimes it can be smoked. Most often it is a steamed beef frank with some very lousy chili slopped over it. Always it is a hot dog. Never is it anything special. Yoda this paragraph wrote.
37. Chicken-fried steak (Wyoming)
Because, y'know, when you're having a steak, you definitely need some heavy breading and thick, greasy gravy to make sure you don't come away with an empty stomach.
38. Finger steaks (Idaho)
"For starters, we'd like the deep-fried steak poppers, please, and a pair of defibrillator paddles."
39. Hamburger casserole (Kansas)
The hamburger that you serve with a fucking ladle. Christ.
40. Hotdish (Minnesota)
This is basically the same thing as Kansas's hamburger casserole—some meat, some starch, some mushy overcooked vegetables, and some canned soup, dumped into a deep pan and baked for a while—only with a name that makes it sound like Rod Stewart should be humping its leg in a London disco in 1974.
41. Michigan pasty (Michigan)
Michigan's signature foodstuff—meat and potatoes served in a portable bread-purse—goes by the name pasty as a means of associating itself with the pasty of England, as though the culinary traditions of that pallid, inbred, rain-soaked island shithole will vindicate what is essentially a calzone for people who hate and fear things that are good.
42. Chislic (South Dakota)
Picture a kebab. Can you picture a kebab? Meat, veggies, skewer, maybe some cucumber dressing and tasty pita bread or naan on the side? Fresh and flavorful and varied and exciting? Got it? OK. Now, eradicate that appetizing image from your mind, and replace it with a bunch of small cubes of greasy, chewy beef on toothpicks, sitting on a sad plate next to some plastic-wrapped packets of saltines. Congratulations. You have now pictured chislic, as well as everything you need to know about the culture of the upper Midwest.
43. Green Jell-O with goddamn carrots in it (Utah)
Come on, Mormons. Goddammit.
44. Lutefisk (North Dakota)
Lutefisk (Norwegian for "lye-fish") is a traditional Nordic preparation whereby dried whitefish is soaked in fucking oven cleaner for no goddamn reason for a long time until it is no longer dry, salty, and disgusting, but gelatinous and pungent and five trillion times as disgusting. There is no reason to eat it ever. There is no reason for it to exist. What the fuck is wrong with Nordic people.
45. Salt water taffy (New Jersey)
New Jersey's signature foodstuff is, quite literally, the result of a sarcastic asshole offering flood-damaged candy to a small child. It is chewy misery to consume, tastes terrible, and contains virtually nothing that any intellectually honest use of the language would permit to be described as food. Salt water taffy is an unhappy accident consecrated to history by the Garden State's lack of literally anything else to claim as its own.
46. Handheld meat pies (Nebraska)
These are homemade Hot Pockets. They are homemade Hot Pockets, and they are what pass for regional culture in Nebraska, the other other other corn state.
47. Akutaq (Alaska)
Say this for akutaq, Alaska's putrid mixture of whipped fat (usually vegetable shortening; traditionally blubber) and berries: What it lacks in, um, not being fucking disgusting, it more than makes up for in the rich lipids and antioxidants the hardy people of the Last Frontier need to get through their pitch-dark "days" of drilling for oil, hunting kidnapped prostitutes across the tundra, and starving to death in abandoned buses.
48. Boiled dinner (New Hampshire)
This is pretty much what it sounds like: You put a big wad of meat and some bland tuberous growths into a pot, cover them with water, clamp on a lid, and then parade around smugly barking about the importance of your dipshit state's presidential primary until the water has successfully annihilated any traces of flavor or character from your food, so that it can more closely resemble the people who will be eating it.
49. Not having any authentic local culture to speak of (Nevada)
Sorry, but "one's retirement savings" does not count as a foodstuff.
50. A fucking steamed fucking cheeseburger (Connecticut)
No foodstuff could more quintessentially embody Connecticut's rigorous commitment to blandness than a mushy wad of pulverized cow cooked in water vapor. You don't need a degree in American history to conjure up the almost certainly accurate image of some buckle-hatted Puritan twerp's Eureka! moment, when he discovered a cheeseburger preparation that promised all of the Caloryes of a Common Cheese-and-Burger, but None of the Curfed Pleafure, which Verily rots the fpirit and faps the Vigour of Man.
51. Being hit by a car
52. Cincinnati chili (Ohio)
For the mercifully unacquainted, "Cincinnati chili," the worst regional foodstuff in America or anywhere else, is a horrifying diarrhea sludge (most commonly encountered in the guise of the "Skyline" brand) that Ohioans slop across plain spaghetti noodles and hot dogs as a way to make the rest of us feel grateful that our own shit-eating is (mostly) figurative. The only thing "chili" about it is the shiver that goes down your spine when you watch Ohio sports fans shoveling it into their maws on television and are forced to reckon with the cold reality that, for as desperately as you might cling to faltering notions of community and universality, ultimately your fellow human beings are as foreign and unknowable to you as the surface of Pluto, and you are alone and always have been and will die alone, a world unto yourself unmarked and unmapped and totally, hopelessly isolated.
But wait! This abominable garbage-gravy isn't just sensorily and spiritually disgusting—it's culturally grotesque, too! What began as an ethnic curio born of immigrant make-do—a Greek-owned chili parlor that took its "Skyline" name from its view of the city of Cincinnati—is now a hulking private-equity-owned corporate monolith that gins up interest in its unmistakably abhorrent product by engineering phony groups of "chili fanatics" to camp out in advance of the opening of new chains, in locations whose residents would otherwise see this shit-broth for what it is and take up torches and truncheons to drive it back into the wilderness.
Whatever virtue this bad-tasting Z-grade atrocity once contained derived from its exemplification of a set of certain cherished American fables—immigrant ingenuity, the cultural melting pot, old things combining into new things—and has now been totally swamped and consumed by different and infinitely uglier American realities: the commodification of culture; the transmutation of authentic artifacts of human life into hollow corporate brand divisions; the willingness of Americans to slop any horrible goddamn thing into their fucking mouths if it claims to contain some byproduct of a cow and comes buried beneath a pyramid of shredded, waxy, safety-cone-orange "cheese."
Cincinnati chili is the worst, saddest, most depressing goddamn thing in the world. If it came out of the end of your digestive system, you would turn the color of chalk and call an ambulance, but at least it'd make some sense. The people of Ohio see nothing wrong with inserting it into their mouths, which perhaps tells you everything you need to know about the Buckeye State. Don't eat it. Don't let your loved ones eat it. Turn away from the darkness, and toward the deep-dish pizza.
The Foodspin archive: Chicken thighs | Popeye's biscuits | Salad | Candy corn Oreos | Chili | Red Bull Total Zero | French toast | Sriracha | Halloween candy | Emergency food | Nachos | Meatloaf | Thanksgiving side dishes | MacGyver Thanksgiving | Eating strategies | Leftovers | Mac and cheese | Weird Santa candies | Pot roast | Bean dip | Shrimp linguine | Go-Gurt | Chicken soup | Lobster tails | Pulled pork | Pasta with anchovies | Sausage and peppers | Bacon, eggs, and toast | Indoor steak | Cool Ranch Doritos Tacos | Chicken breasts | Baked Ziti | Quiche | Pimento cheese sandwich | Potato salad | Popeyes Rip'n Chick'n | Crab cakes | Mother's Day brunch | Cheeseburgers | Uncrustables | Peach cobbler | Pizza | Alfredo sauce | Kebabs | Soft-shell crabs | Ruffles Ultimate | Omelet | Pesto | Poached eggs | Bivalves | Ribs | Caesar Salad | Nutella | Reuben sandwich | Corn relish | Lasagna
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at email@example.com, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Map and illustrations by Jim Cooke.