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50 states, 50 desserts

Every state deserves its own dessert, so here's a list of 50 mouth-watering indulgences

The Columbian
Published: September 4, 2014, 5:00pm

What would America be without dessert? It would be puritanical. It would be boring. It would be healthier, probably.

Thankfully for our collective culture, if not our blood-sugar levels, America is a land of desserts. Drive across the country, and you’ll find pralines and cookies in every gas station, pies and cakes in every diner. More than oil, more than sports, more than meat, even, sugar is the fuel that keeps America running.

And so it is clear that each state ought to claim its own dessert, even as we all praise apple pie as the ultimate symbol of Americana. Surprisingly, only eight states have an official dessert (along with 15 that have recognized state cookies, state candies, and other dessert subcategories). I see this as an enormous oversight and a trenchant example of the failure of bureaucracy to meet citizens’ needs. And so I decided to assign a dessert to every one of these blessed United States.

Such a formidable task requires some ground rules:

o No two states can have the same dessert. Once a dessert is assigned to one state, no other state can lay claim to it. This rule will no doubt chagrin many readers who believe their state deserves banana pudding, but, as we all learned in childhood, we can’t always have banana pudding when we want it.

o Brands are not desserts. For the purposes of this map, a dessert is a treat that can be made in your kitchen, not a trademarked secret recipe. There are lots of dessert brands closely associated with states — Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont, MoonPie in Tennessee, Pepperidge Farm in Connecticut, and Hershey’s in Pennsylvania, for instance — but you won’t find any of them on this map. (I did make a single exception for a certain brand name that has become synonymous with gelatin desserts of all stripes.)

o No state gets apple pie — or chocolate chip cookies. Assigning apple pie to a single state would be tantamount to declaring that state more American than the others. We wouldn’t want to be responsible for sparking a second civil war, and so we’ve decided to take apple pie off the table, so to speak.

Chocolate chip cookies aren’t quite as emblematic as apple pie, and unlike apple pie they have a clear place of birth: the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass. But chocolate chip cookies have since spread across the nation like an invasive species, taking root in the hearts of all Americans. It wouldn’t be fair to let one state lay claim to such a universal favorite. (Besides, Massachusetts already has a bunch of great desserts to choose from.)

This map was difficult to compile, given that so many desserts are regional rather than local in origin, and it will no doubt draw complaints from, say, Louisianans who think they should have gotten red velvet cake. But remember: Even if your state didn’t get your favorite dessert, you’re still allowed to eat it.

Alabama: Lane cake: Also known as Alabama Lane cake, Lane cake is one of those boozy, eggy, dried-fruit-filled confections we don’t eat enough of these days. Invented by Emma Rylander Lane in the 1890s, a Lane cake is a sponge cake layered with a raisin-bourbon filling and frosted with a marshmallow-y “boiled white frosting.” Lane cake is also to Harper Lee what the madeleine is to Marcel Proust: The baked good makes several appearances in the Alabama-set “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Alaska: Baked Alaska: OK, fine, so the baked Alaska was not invented in Alaska. It wasn’t even invented by someone who had been to Alaska. Cakes topped with ice cream and encased with meringue were served for decades before Alaska became a state, under names such as “omelette surprise” and “omelette a la norvegienne” (Norwegian omelette, probably an allusion to Norway’s cold climate). But it was the name popularized in the 1870s by Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York — a tribute to the newly purchased Department of Alaska — that stuck. It’s easy to see why the visually apt name caught on: The white, mounded dessert bears more than a passing resemblance to the snow-capped Mount McKinley.

Arizona: Sopaipilla: Sopaipillas are similar to frybread — invented by Arizona’s original residents, the Navajo — which is to say that they’re deep-fried circles or squares of leavened dough. While frybread can be served with sweet or savory fillings, sopaipillas are more commonly served drizzled with honey as a dessert food. Some dessert experts see sopaipillas as more of a New Mexico thing, but it’s not fair for New Mexico to hog all of the American Southwest’s desserts.

Arkansas: Red velvet cake: Red velvet cake is having a moment, according to the New York Times, which insists that the scarlet-hued cake was invented at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, “though some Southern cake historians believe that story is more legend than fact.” Whatever its true history, red velvet cake is firmly situated in the public imagination as a creation of the South. Plus, red velvet cake is colored cardinal and white — the official colors of the University of Arkansas.

California: Meyer lemon cake: Meyer lemons, a cross between lemons and oranges, grow easily in California’s temperate climate, so it’s no wonder Alice Waters’ crew at Chez Panisse seized on them when they were inventing California cuisine in the 1960s. Nowadays, elegant, not-too-sweet Meyer lemon cake is ubiquitous on West Coast restaurant menus.

Colorado: Pot candy: The legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado at the beginning of this year opened the floodgates to a vigorous and controversial edibles industry. It was never any question that Colorado’s state dessert would be laced with THC — the question was, what kind of sweet edible should get the crown? Thankfully, Maureen Dowd recently settled matters in an instant-classic column describing a “caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar” that made her “convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.”

Connecticut: Spice cookies: Connecticut is known as the Nutmeg State not because nutmeg grows there (it doesn’t), but because “its early inhabitants had the reputation of being so ingenious and shrewd that they were able to make and sell wooden nutmegs” — in other words, they were able to pass off fake nutmegs as real ones. It’s a bit of a convoluted origin story, and one that doesn’t speak well of the state’s integrity. But it does make a certain amount of sense: Connecticut’s earliest settlers were Dutch, and the Dutch are big on baking spices. Spice cookies aren’t quite as popular in Connecticut as they are in the Old World, but it’s hard to find fault with the soft, aromatic New England variety.

Delaware: Strawberry shortcake: Strawberries were declared the official state fruit of Delaware in 2010, and you can’t argue with House Bill No. 203 (“Whereas, strawberries are an important product of Delaware’s agricultural industry; and whereas children and adults love to pick their own strawberries; and whereas strawberries can be a refreshing part of everyone’s diet”). Strawberry shortcake is indubitably the best strawberry dessert, so this one was easy.

Florida: Key lime pie: Key lime pie is the official state pie of Florida. There is an annual Key lime pie festival in Cape Canaveral. Florida media outlets specialize in lists of the best Key lime pies served in the state. And the limes in Key lime pie are named after the Florida Keys. This choice was easy as pie.

Georgia: Peach cobbler: The Georgia Peach Council might have the slickest website of any American agricultural association. Georgia peach growers know that peach is practically synonymous with Georgia, and they’re milking it for all it’s worth. Georgia has its pick of peach desserts, so why did I assign it peach cobbler instead of the more obvious peach pie? The Georgia Peach Council offers two cobbler recipes but no pie recipes. Surprising, yes, but I’m not about to argue with professionals.

Hawaii: Shave ice: Does the phrase “shave ice” make your grammatically fastidious brain hurt? You clearly have never had real Hawaiian shave ice, which is so good it’s been known to cure pedantry. Made from large blocks of ice shaved into the finest flakes imaginable, drenched with whatever fruit-flavored syrup your heart desires, and sometimes drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, shave ice might be Hawaii’s most important contribution to American culture.

Idaho: Huckleberry pie: Did you think Idaho’s state dessert was going to be a potato cake? Come on, now. OK, fine, potato cake exists — but it’s hardly the regional treat huckleberry pie is. If you’ve never eaten a huckleberry, it’s probably because agricultural scientists haven’t yet figured out how to domesticate them — they only grow in the wild. If you have eaten a huckleberry, you probably live in the vicinity of northern Idaho. Or you’re a black bear. Or both. Either way, you probably like the sweet-tart goodness of huckleberry pie.

Illinois: Brownies: Brownies made their debut at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, so I thought it was only fair to credit Chicago for one of the world’s favorite baked goods. After all, the original recipe, which contains a pound of chocolate and a pound of butter, is a good one.

Indiana: Sugar cream pie: According to the Indiana Foodways Alliance, “Indiana’s contribution to the nation’s pie mythology is sugar cream.” What is a sugar cream pie? The name is pretty literal: It’s a pie whose filling contains cream, flour, sugar, and vanilla — no eggs. It’s also sometimes called Hoosier sugar cream pie, just in case any other state wanted for some reason to take credit for it.

Iowa: Cherry pie: As a famous gourmand once said, “tastes so good, makes a grown man cry.” Every year at the annual fundraiser known as Veishea, Iowa State students sell thousands of cherry pies to raise money for the Veishea Cherry Pie Scholarship Fund. This bake sale tradition has been going on since 1920.

Kansas: Dirt cake: A chilled concoction of instant pudding, imitation whipped cream, and crushed chocolate sandwich cookies, Kansas dirt cake is the most prominent dessert named in honor of Kansas. Kansas dirt cake is not to be confused with Mississippi mud pie, which is a totally different soil-themed dessert.

Kentucky: Bread pudding: The home of bourbon deserves a bourbon-flavored state dessert, and the very best bourbon-flavored dessert is bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Granted, a bunch of Southern states (notably Louisiana) lay claim to bread pudding, but given that none of those states would be able to make decent bread pudding without bourbon, I’m giving this one to Kentucky.

Louisiana: Bananas Foster: Bananas Foster: invented in New Orleans, adequately boozy, easy to set on fire. Both festive enough for Louisiana’s pre-Lenten revelries and simple enough to make any other time of the year.

Maine: Blueberry pie: Maine is the country’s leading producer of lowbush or “wild” blueberries, which tend to be smaller, brighter, and more intensely flavored than the commercially viable highbush blueberries. Predictably, Mainers won’t shut up about their blueberries. The Maine state Legislature’s designation of blueberry pie as the official state dessert in 2011 was a foregone conclusion.

Maryland: Smith Island cake: Smith Island is a tiny community of a few hundred people on the Chesapeake Bay. When they’re not catching soft-shell crabs, Smith Islanders spend their time making absurdly exacting cakes of six to 12 layers interspersed with chocolate icing. The Smith Island Baking Company, the only bakery on Smith Island, has proclaimed itself “the 1 Dessert Company in the World,” and assuming they’re judging on a scale of arduousness, I have to agree. Even though Smith Island cakes aren’t commonly made in the rest of Maryland, they became the official state dessert in 2008 — a testament to Smith Island’s PR power (and to the paucity of other Maryland dessert specialties).

Massachusetts: Boston cream pie: The Parker House Hotel alleges that its chef invented the Boston cream pie — a sponge cake layered with pastry cream and topped with a chocolate fondant — in 1856. History blogger Tori Avey takes issue with that origin story, explaining that “cream pie” was a common 19th-century term for round cakes layered with pastry cream, that the chocolate topping came into play later, and that people only started calling this dessert “Boston cream pie” because there was already a well-known dessert called “Boston cream cake,” which was in fact not a cake but a cream puff. (Got all that?) Regardless, the name stuck, Bostonians embraced it, and no less a distinguished Massachusetts family than the Kennedys championed the dessert as a symbol of the commonwealth.

Michigan: Fudge: Anyone with milk, butter, sugar, and chocolate can make fudge. But the residents of Mackinac Island, Mich., have taken fudge to another level, building an entire tourist industry around it and claiming to have “perfected” it.

Minnesota: Seven-layer bars: Page 4 of “You Know You’re in Minnesota When …” states “a potluck isn’t a potluck without bars.” The best bars for a potluck or any other occasion are seven-layer bars, so called because they contain butter, graham cracker crumbs, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, walnuts, shredded coconut, and sweetened condensed milk, in that order.

Mississippi: Mississippi mud pie: Depending on the baker, Mississippi mud pie might contain a chocolate crumb crust or a traditional pie crust, which might be filled with chocolate pudding or chocolate cake or brownie batter, which might be topped with whipped cream or ice cream. Two things are certain: It will contain chocolate, and it will be just about the richest thing you ever tasted.

Missouri: Gooey butter cake: Gooey butter cake is a St. Louis curiosity that seems to defy description (despite the seemingly specific nature of its name). It falls somewhere between a sheet cake and a bar: It starts with a layer of thick, extra-buttery yellow cake (doctored from a cake mix box, usually), but the gooey part comes from a filling made of cream cheese, powdered sugar, and eggs. Like most great regional specialties, it comes with a host of contradictory origin stories, all of which place its birth somewhere in the 1930s or 1940s.

Montana: S’mores: The s’more was not invented in Montana, but hear me out: Montana is one of the best hiking destinations in the country. It’s home to Glacier National Park and part of Yellowstone; its name means “mountain,” for crying out loud. And anyone who plans a hike, camping trip, or other mountain-based recreational activity without bringing graham crackers, milk chocolate, and marshmallows is a fool. QED.

Nebraska: Popcorn balls: Nebraska is the country’s leading popcorn producer, growing about one-quarter of our national supply. According to legend, popcorn balls were invented during a day of wonky Nebraska weather: First heavy rains sent syrup flowing from sorghum grass into the cornfields, then extreme heat caused the corn to pop, and finally a tornado swept the sugar-coated popcorn into clusters. Climate change makes this story seem actually kind of plausible, but the folktale gives short shrift to whoever really invented candy-coated popcorn spheres, Nebraska’s contribution to the nation’s dessert menu.

Nevada: Chocolate fondue: The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas is home to the world’s largest chocolate fondue fountain, which is reason enough to award melted chocolate dip to this state.

New Hampshire: Whoopie pie: New Hampshire, Maine, and Pennsylvania have all claimed ownership of the whoopie pie, which raises a question: Why haven’t any of these states come up with a less cringe-y name for it? (Some people call them “gobs.” Keep working on it!) Whoopie pies are not pies: They’re chocolate cake disks sandwiched around vanilla frosting or marshmallow fluff. Yankee magazine has proclaimed that the best pies are made at a bakery in the Granite State.

New Jersey: Salt water taffy: Atlantic City, N.J., has made a number of lasting contributions to Americana: Monopoly, the Miss America pageant, that Bruce Springsteen song and, most importantly, those color-coded candy cylinders that, despite their name, contain no salt water.

New Mexico: Bizcochito: New Mexico became the first state to adopt a state cookie in 1989, when it made things official with this traditional anise-and-orange-scented sugar biscuit. The fact that New Mexico went out of its way to declare a state cookie before anyone else did speaks to a serious-mindedness that this map would be remiss not to respect.

New York: Cheesecake: New York state is much more than New York City — but New York City’s signature dessert has acquired such mythic proportions that it overshadows the rest of the state’s sweets. In fact, New York-style cheesecake, with its impossibly tall and dense layer of cream-cheese filling, has eclipsed all other styles of cheesecake to become America’s definitive cheesecake style.

North Carolina: Sweet potato pie: Sweet potato pie is one of those pan-Southern desserts, a mainstay of soul food with roots in slave cooking. Tar Heels grow more sweet potatoes than residents of any other state, which gives them dibs on the tuber’s most illustrious dish.

North Dakota: Krumkake: I must confess that I’ve never been to North Dakota, but I’m nonetheless pretty confident about my choice of krumkake as this state’s dessert. Krumkake is not a crumbcake: It’s a thin, rolled-up Norwegian cookie, somewhere between a pizzelle and a waffle cone. And it’s pronounced kroom-cacka.

Ohio: Buckeye candy: Buckeye candy is so called for its resemblance to the nut of the buckeye, the state tree of Ohio and nickname for its residents. Like a cross between peanut butter fudge and peanut butter cups, Buckeye candies consist of a ball of sweet peanut butter dough dipped in melted chocolate. Congratulations to Ohio for producing a confection that actually looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like, and that’s delicious to boot.

Oklahoma: Fried pie: “It was an abnormally cold winter in the year 1893.” So begins the rather dramatic origin story of Oklahoma’s oldest fried pie company. The tale continues, “The different ranchers in the Arbuckle Mountains had their ranch hands go out into the midst of the inclement weather to tend to the cattle.” Long story short, the ranchers were miserable that winter until one resourceful woman started making them fried pies. That woman’s granddaughter, Nancy Fulton, is now known as “the Fried Pie Lady,” and she has turned her inherited knowledge of fried pies — fruit-filled turnovers, basically — into a miniature empire that’s extended its tentacles into Texas and Arkansas.

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Oregon: Blackberry cobbler: Blackberries grow like weeds in the Pacific Northwest, and Oregon is the top-producing state. Fresh blackberries are pretty good raw, but they’re even better cooked into a sweet, buttery batter.

Pennsylvania: Banana split: In 1904, a young soda jerk named David “Doc” Strickler halved a banana lengthwise, nestled some scoops of ice cream in between the two halves, added some whipped cream and flavored syrups, and made history in Latrobe, Pa. If this provenance weren’t enough, the chocolate sauce that’s a required topping on all banana splits provides a nice nod to one of Pennsylvania’s most famous brands.

Rhode Island: Frozen lemonade: Frozen lemonade possesses beveragelike qualities, but at the moment it’s served, this tart, granita-like slushy is thick enough to eat with a spoon, which makes it a dessert in my book. The most famous purveyor of frozen lemonade in Rhode Island is Del’s, which has been cooling palates since 1948.

South Carolina: Coconut cake: Many bakers make coconut cakes, but only one baker has trademarked the phrase “Ultimate Coconut Cake.” The creation of pastry chef Claire Chapman, the pastry chef at the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, the Ultimate Coconut Cake(R) has been feted by the likes of Martha Stewart and Bobby Stewart. The state that has taken coconut cake to its overelaborate zenith is the state that gets coconut cake as its official state dessert.

South Dakota: Kuchen: Like North Dakota, South Dakota has a fair amount of inhabitants of German and Scandinavian extraction. Kuchen just means cake in German, and in South Dakota it can refer to a number of different types of cake, but the type recognized as the official state dessert, according to the 2011 South Dakota Legislative Manual, is “a sweet dough crust filled with custard, which is served plain or studded with fruit, such as prunes, peaches, blueberries and apples.”

Tennessee: Banana pudding: Many states — perhaps all the states — wanted banana pudding as their state sweet. The layered concoction of sliced bananas, vanilla pudding, vanilla wafers, and whipped cream is an honest-to-God American treasure. And Tennessee is the state that has developed a festival worthy of banana pudding’s charms: The National Banana Pudding Festival and Cook-Off has been running for five years in Hickman County, Tenn.

Texas: Pecan pie: The pecan tree is Texas’ official state tree, the native pecan is Texas’ official state nut, and San Saba, Texas, is the self-proclaimed “pecan capital of the world.” Does it surprise you that the Texas House of Representatives recently named pecan pie the official state pie? It should not.

Utah: Jell-O: Utah is the only state whose dessert is the same as its meat. (Come to think of it, Jell-O is one of the only desserts that is made out of meat.) There’s a reason the so-called “Mormon Corridor” is also known as the “Jell-O Belt” — Jell-O is the most potent symbol of Latter-day Saint culture and cuisine.

Vermont: Maple candy: The Pieces of Vermont store, “Your Vermont maple candy and maple wedding favors specialists,” isn’t the only place you can buy maple candy — a magical confection that is made from pure, concentrated, whipped maple syrup — but it is the most aptly named.

Virginia: Chess pie: Chess pie (the name is possibly a corruption of “chest pie” or “cheese pie”) is filled with a custard containing eggs, butter, flour, sugar, and usually cornmeal. Chess pie is awarded to Virginia because the very first written recipe for such a pie, hiding under the alias “transparent pudding,” appeared in The Virginia House-wife in 1825.

Washington: Nanaimo bars: Yes, Nanaimo bars get their name from Nanaimo, B.C., and they are indubitably Canadian by birth. But it’s unsurprising that these sweets, which consist of a layer of graham cracker and nut crust, a layer of pudding or buttercream frosting, and a layer of chocolate, gained popularity south of the Canadian border as well. And it was Seattle-based behemoth Starbucks, which has sold Nanaimo bars seasonally, that introduced them to the rest of America.

West Virginia: Shoofly pie: Shoofly pie is a colorful name for molasses pie. It seems to have been invented, like so many other desserts, by the Pennsylvania Dutch, but molasses is a beloved ingredient throughout Appalachia, as evidenced by the West Virginia Molasses Festival, held annually in Arnoldsburg, W.V., since 1967.

Wisconsin: Kringle: What is a kringle, you ask? Why, just head over to kringle.com, which tells you everything you need to know: The home page bears several photographs of the ring-shaped, fruit-filled, streudel-like pastries and a large insignia reading “Official State Pastry of Wisconsin.”

Wyoming: Cowboy cookies: The connection between cowboys and cowboy cookies is unclear, unless it’s just that cowboys, like the rest of us, enjoy oatmeal cookies packed with chocolate chips, pecans, and coconut. Regardless, as the state with the most enduring cowboy cred, Wyoming gets cowboy cookies.