The United Plates of America

From apples to onions, official state foods run the gamut

Published: Wednesday, June 29 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

On Monday, we can celebrate America the bountiful — state to shining state brimming with everything from Washington apples to Florida orange juice, Alaskan salmon to Vermont maple syrup, not to mention those amber waves of grain. Around the country, legislatures have made some of these food products "official" state emblems, often the result of lobbying groups or student letter-writing campaigns. You can find out about these emblems on individual state Web sites, as well as on sites that have collected information on all the states, such as State History Guide Resources (www.shgresources.com), and Netstate.com, found at www.netstate.com/states, and the Food Timeline (www.foodtimeline.org).

Some emblems aren't that unique — 11 states recognize the white-tailed deer as their official animal or mammal. Utah is one of 16 states that has the honeybee as its official insect, although nobody else can say their territory was first called "Deseret," the Book of Mormon word for "honeybee."

And milk is the official beverage of 17 states. So who says America isn't the land of milk and honey?

Only Rhode Island has coffee milk as an official state drink — described as similar to chocolate milk, but with coffee syrup instead of chocolate. According to Autocrat Coffee and Syrup of Rhode Island, the drink became popular in the 1930s, when diner and drugstore operators sweetened leftover coffee grounds with milk and sugar.

Some foods were so designated because the state is a major producer — Georgia's official crop is the peanut, its fruit is the peach, and its vegetable is the Vidalia onion. It's no surprise that Idaho's official vegetable is the potato.

Other symbols were honored for their historical significance, such as North Carolina's Scuppernong grape, the first grape actively cultivated in the United States, according to State History Guide Resources. In 2002, Senate Bill 136 named the sugar beet Utah's official historic vegetable, as a nod to a once-thriving industry. The Utah Sugar Co.'s fac-

tory in Lehi, built in 1891, was the country's first beet sugar factory built with American machinery, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia. By the 1980s, there were no beet sugar factories left in Utah. The same senate bill also named the Spanish sweet onion Utah's official vegetable.

A few official foods may not be found on today's dinner tables, but they played a role in the survival of native Americans and early pioneer settlers — the sego lily in Utah, Indian rice grass in both Utah and Nevada, Alaska's bowhead whale, the golden poppy in California and bitterroot in Montana. Lewis and Clark wrote about the beautiful purplish-pink flower of the bitterroot, which was too bitter to eat unless it was cooked, and it was usually mixed with berries or meat.

Kansas, Wyoming and Oklahoma all recognize bison, which roamed their lands in huge herds during the 1800s but were nearly wiped out. Likewise, Maryland's diamondback terrapin (turtle) was once so abundant that it was a staple diet of slaves and indentured servants in the early 1800s. Then in the late 1800s, terrapin soup, laced with cream and sherry, became a gourmet delicacy among the wealthy. The demand nearly decimated the local terrapin population, prompting laws to protect it, according to the April 2005 issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

Utahns may remember comedian Bill Cosby's visit in 2001, to lobby legislators to make Jell-O Utah's official snack. In 1997, Jell-O officials confirmed that Utah had the highest per-capita consumption of fruit-flavored gelatin in the country. When Utah's Jell-O sales slipped and Iowa took over that distinction in 1999, it sparked a local campaign (with a lot of support from the Jell-O folks) to "Take Back the Title," recounted in past Deseret Morning News articles. After Utah was once again on top of the heap, the legislature humored Jell-O spokesman Cosby and passed a resolution recognizing the jiggly dessert.