Choosing 50 iconic state dishes: What the process has revealed

We at Flavored Nation are closing in fast on our big event, gathering 50 chefs, each preparing the iconic dish of his or her state in St. Louis on Oct. 28 and 29. Nothing like this has ever been done before. To say we are excited about seeing and tasting all 50 states together would be an understatement!

Now that we’ve gathered the 50 iconic state dishes we have a wonderful view of the process, and talking to state officials, local foodies, focus groups and national food writers has led to one inescapable conclusion: Within our 50 states there are easily identifiable “groups,” each presenting its own kind of challenge. It’s a unique perspective on America’s food, and seeing these combos helps us to understand what kind of Flavored Nation we are.

I play a parlor game with my foodie friends. I say “what’s the iconic dish of such-and-such a state?” And when some states come up, no one ever guesses wrong. Take the test right now. What do you think is the iconic dish of Maine? If you said lobster, you’re close, except that Flavored Nation is dedicated to the top 50 dishes, not foods. From there, it’s a short walk down a short pier. We know that attendees at the Flavored Nation event will be delighted with the great Lobster Roll, cold with mayo, on a griddled side-split bun, coming from McLoons Lobster Shack on Spruce Head Island, Maine.

The other great no-brainer also involves shellfish. You know that Maryland has got to be about crabs, but there is a little twist here. Throughout coastal Maryland there are many places dedicated to huge piles of spiced and steamed whole crabs strewn on paper-covered tables, but you gotta be near the water to get a steady supply of live crabs. What’s much more common throughout the state are crab cakes. Everybody makes ’em, everywhere, and all you need to make ’em is refrigerated pieces of already-picked crab. One of the best ones I’ve ever had is the crab cake from the great Costas Inn just outside of Baltimore. Happily, Pete Costas Triantafilos will be in St. Louis to make a thousand tastes of Maryland crab cake for the throng.

Category #2: The Stumpers

At the exact opposite end of the spectrum are the states that yield no clues to most people. I myself had no clue when I started thinking about iconic state dishes from South Dakota, North Dakota and Utah.

After digging in on the favorite foods of the Dakotas, I discovered that everyone in South Dakota has a memory of growing up with chislic, as well as a habit of going to restaurants and bars to get it. These cubes of meat, often beef or lamb, are seasoned, deep-fried and served with toothpicks and saltine crackers. Just north, across the border, we find knoephla, creamy potato soup with German dumplings.

There is a posh country club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where two chefs work in the same kitchen. Sharea Holcomb and Tanner Mott — she from South Dakota, he from North Dakota -- are on their way to St. Louis with chislic and knoephla.

Utah is famous for many things, but an indigenous cuisine is not one of them. We dug and dug and discovered that no state in the U.S. has a greater concentration of artisanal chocolate-makers, which makes Utah an interesting case in our lineup because it’s a state with an overwhelming, non-traditional specialty. Art Pollard from the sensational Amano Chocolates will be making special batches for Flavored Nation, and bringing them to St. Louis.

Category #3: The States Loaded with Options

A few states threw us for a loop, not because there were too few options, but because there are too many. The very best example of this phenomenon was Louisiana. Which way do you go: muffalettas, po’boys, jambalaya, red beans & rice, char-grilled oysters, gumbo? We polled Louisiana foodies very carefully, and found that most leaned toward gumbo as the dish, if you have to pick one. My favorite restauranteur in New Orleans agreed, and Dickie Brennan Jr. will be bringing his skills to St. Louis in October to fix steaming cauldrons of Shrimp Gumbo.

The other state that comes to mind for an embarrassment of choices is right next door — Texas. Let’s just start with the barbecue: focused on beef, of course, a great Texas tradition, featuring smoked brisket and barbecued ribs. But there’s more, especially when you consider all the Tex-Mex food like enchiladas and tacos. In the end, we went for Texas beef in the form of chicken-fried steak, which indisputably was invented in the Lone Star State. Just ask Grady Spears, cowboy/celebrity chef from Horseshoe Hill Cowboy Cafe in Fort Worth, where he turns out about 800 chicken-fried steaks a day.

Category #4: The States Not Easily Summed Up by One Dish

California is a great state for eating, especially when you look at the profusion of serious modern chefs, but is there a dish that sums up their work? Not today, there isn’t. There’s another problem, too: Is the iconic state dish of California something from the north like San Francisco sourdough bread or something from the south, like some version of fresh and healthful Mexican food?

After much thought, we decided to go with the latter, reasoning that you’re much more likely to find that kind of enlightened Mexican food across the state than you are to find San Francisco/Napa/Mendocino kind of modern food spread across the south. I’m a big fan of Baja-Style Fish Tacos in San Diego and throughout the state. So when we discovered that there’s a crazily talented young chef from Galaxy Taco in La Jolla making her own masa and tortillas, the deal was done. Look for Christine Rivera in St. Louis serving you the best fish taco you’ve ever had.

Category #5: The Big-City Problem

Lastly, the “city trap” has one other iteration — those states in which the popular thinking about food is downright dominated by a big city. This is powerfully the case in, say, Pennsylvania. Everyone thinks first about the great sandwiches of Philadelphia. Is there even another dish from not Philadelphia that could be a candidate? And so, we caved to the inevitable and chose the Philly Cheesesteak as our iconic dish of Pennsylvania.

So it went in Illinois, where the obvious candidates were Chicago specialties like hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. This one pretty much came down to what it was that potential attendees wanted to eat, and the choice was pizza. This lined up well with our logistical needs, because: 1) we wanted a pizza from somewhere; 2) having a blazing-hot oven is less crucial in deep-dish pizza-making than in, say, Naples pizza-making; and 3) because of Chicago’s proximity to St. Louis, if an oven had to be brought in it’s not such a long ride! Rich Aronson, owner/pizzaiolo of My Pi Pizza in Chicago, will be in St. Louis with delicious deep-dish in hand, no matter what it takes.

The one state in which we resisted the temptation to go with the big-city food was New York. Everyone who takes a stab at New York’s iconic dish says either pastrami, bagel and lox, or NYC slice pizza. Foodies forget that one of the most ubiquitous dishes in New York State or anywhere these days was indisputably invented in Western New York: Buffalo Chicken Wings, from the great city of Buffalo. We’ve arranged to welcome the most talented wing guy in Buffalo and every local foodie swears he’s the best — Joe Duff, from Duff’s Famous Wings, who, when last we spoke, was working through the issues involved in getting thousands of wings from his wing supplier in Buffalo to St. Louis. No one else’s wings will do!

That’s exactly the kind of weekend it’s going to be -- wacky, precise and ecstatically delicious.

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