If every state had an official dessert, what would it be?
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, on the heels of my efforts to assign a meat to every state, to assign a dessert to every one of these blessed United States.
Such a formidable task requires some ground rules:
1. 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.
2. 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.)
3. 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, Massachusetts. 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.
(Map by Jess Fink.)
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.
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 like “omelette surprise” and “omelette à la norvégienne” (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.
Furthermore, Alaska is the only state name that describes a dessert not merely as a modifier, but as a noun. To omit this singular sweet from a list of pseudo-official state desserts would be a dereliction of my duties.
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.
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: Who can forget the armadillo-shaped groom’s cake in Steel Magnolias? Granted, Steel Magnolias is technically set in Louisiana, but that’s not far from Arkansas (which doesn’t have any state dessert specialties to speak of). Plus, red velvet cake is colored cardinal and white—the official colors of the University of Arkansas.
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.
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? Cookies? Brownies? Gummy bears?
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.” If you’d like to make weed-laced caramel-chocolate bars at home in Dowd’s honor, here is one of many recipes available online.
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.
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.
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.
The Georgia Peach Council might have the slickest website of any American agricultural association. Not only is the design eye-catching, with accents of aquamarine and, well, peach, but you can also win an iPad if you share your “Georgia Peach experiences.” Point being, Georgia peach growers know that peach is practically synonymous with Georgia, and they’re milking it for all its 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.
See all of them here: