What Does It Take to Become an Official State Snack?

Health benefits, cultural significance, and a couple of elementary schoolchildren with a taste for the democratic process.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
May 7, 2014, 7:35 a.m.

Snacks are ser­i­ous busi­ness.

And when one spe­cif­ic snack — yogurt — came up for con­sid­er­a­tion for New York’s of­fi­cial snack food, law­makers had a lot of ques­tions.

“Did the spon­sor con­sider rais­ins as a po­ten­tial of­fi­cial state snack?” asked one sen­at­or dur­ing an hour-long de­bate by the New York state Sen­ate. “Per­haps pret­zels? “¦ What if the pret­zel was dipped in yogurt? “¦ Cheese­cake?” An­oth­er wondered if people who are lactose in­tol­er­ant might be of­fen­ded. A third made a last-minute ap­peal for the car­rot cook­ie.

Com­mit­ment fears hung in the air. “I don’t think I can vote to make yogurt the of­fi­cial state snack,” one sen­at­or said. “I don’t think we should rush to judg­ment on yogurt to­night.”

The cham­ber even­tu­ally voted 52-8 to make yogurt the of­fi­cial state snack. The bill, which heads to the State As­sembly for ap­prov­al, provides this reas­on­ing for the pick:

Yogurt is a healthy food that tastes great and is a good source of pro­tein, cal­ci­um, vit­am­in B-2, B-12, po­tassi­um, and mag­nesi­um, all nu­tri­ents that are an im­port­ant part of a good diet. Yogurt is also an im­port­ant eco­nom­ic driver across our state; in fact New York is now the No. 1 pro­cessor of yogurt in the coun­try.”

New York, in­clud­ing at least one of its sen­at­ors, also has a vo­cal love af­fair with the Greek yogurt com­pany Chobani, whose main pro­duc­tion plant is loc­ated up­state.

Not any food can just be­come a state snack — it has to mat­ter to the res­id­ents who con­sume it. Here’s a list of oth­er states with of­fi­cial snack foods, and what it took for them get there.

The re­cipe for suc­cess, it seems, in­volves health be­ne­fits, cul­tur­al sig­ni­fic­ance, and, sur­pris­ingly, feisty ele­ment­ary-school kids.

Utah

For Utah, health be­ne­fits were not at the fore­front of the de­bate over its own state snack in 2001: Jell-O. Rather, it was a his­tory of wide­spread con­sump­tion by res­id­ents. Here’s a sampling of the le­gis­la­tion’s reas­on­ing:

WHERE­AS, Jell-O® brand gelat­in was in­tro­duced to the coun­try in 1897, just one year after Utah was ad­mit­ted to the Uni­on as the 45th state;

WHERE­AS, Utah has been the No. 1 per cap­ita con­sumer of Jell-O® brand gelat­in for many years;

WHERE­AS, Jell-O® is rep­res­ent­at­ive of good fam­ily fun, which Utah is known for throughout the world;

WHERE­AS, Salt Lake Magazine pro­claimed Utah “the Jell-O® State” in a cov­er story in 1996;

WHERE­AS, Jell-O® brand gelat­in re­cipes, which of­ten in­clude ba­na­nas, apples, marsh­mal­lows, pret­zels, car­rots, and grapes, are a tra­di­tion­al fa­vor­ite at fam­ily, church, and com­munity din­ners throughout the Bee­hive State.

The next year, one of the souven­ir pins cre­ated for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City de­pic­ted green Jell-O.

Illinois

The Prair­ie State de­clared pop­corn its of­fi­cial snack in 2003, beat­ing out Dor­i­tos and Chee­tos. The move came as a sur­prise to some. Illinois is among the lead­ing pro­du­cers of pop­corn in the U.S., but at the time only ranked fourth in acres of pop­corn ex­pec­ted to be har­ves­ted, be­hind Neb­raska and In­di­ana.

But, as the Chica­go Tribune ex­plained back then, Chica­goans love their pop­corn:

If you doubt Amer­ica’s de­vo­tion to pop­corn, just stand for a while and watch the lines that al­ways snake out of the Gar­rett pop­corn shop on Michigan Av­en­ue. They don’t need ads. You walk by, you smell it, you get in line.

With a hot-air pop­per and no but­ter, it’s al­most diet food. Drenched in but­ter, it’s a heart at­tack in a bag.

The ba­sic trin­ity — car­a­mel, plain, cheese — re­flect a sort of com­plete cycle of life. There’s a ker­nel of wis­dom here, in the sweet, the salty, and the sa­vory. One leads to the oth­er, then back again. Per­fect.

Trouble sprang up for Illinois’s fa­vor­ite snack a dec­ade later. The fed­er­al “Smart Snacks” pro­gram, which will place re­stric­tions on school snacks start­ing this fall, could pro­hib­it cheesy, candy-flavored, and oth­er un­healthy types of pop­corn.

Texas

For the Lone Star State, des­ig­nat­ing tor­tilla chips and salsa as its of­fi­cial snack food in 2003 was a no-brain­er for a num­ber of reas­ons, in­clud­ing tra­di­tion:

Like the square dance, the gui­tar, and the rodeo, tor­tilla chips and salsa are deeply rooted in Texas tra­di­tion and en­joy pop­ular­ity throughout the length and breadth of the state; stocked in count­less kit­chens, they are brought out for sol­it­ary re­fresh­ment and for so­cial gath­er­ings of vir­tu­ally every de­scrip­tion and level of form­al­ity.

Sci­ence:

In ad­di­tion to their tra­di­tion­al im­port­ance as a food­stuff, pep­pers, onions, and to­ma­toes have played a sig­ni­fic­ant role in Texas folk medi­cine, and their value in fight­ing ill­ness is be­ing in­creas­ingly re­cog­nized by mod­ern sci­ence.

And the eco­nomy:

To­geth­er with corn, these three plants also play a not­able eco­nom­ic role in the state; in re­cent years, onions have ranked as the No. 1 cash truck crop in Texas, while corn has ac­coun­ted for about 5 per­cent of the state’s ag­ri­cul­tur­al eco­nomy; na­tion­wide in 2000, Texas ranked 1st in the pro­duc­tion of jalapeño pep­pers, 4th in the pro­duc­tion of onions, and 16th in the pro­duc­tion of to­ma­toes, while a 2002 re­port ranks the state 10th in the pro­duc­tion of corn.

South Car­o­lina

Boiled pea­nuts were de­clared South Car­o­lina’s state snack in 2006 be­cause they have been a staple there since the early 20th cen­tury. These days, the legumes can be bought just about any­where in South Car­o­lina — in stores, road­side stands, base­ball games, and this on­line cata­log.

His­tor­i­ans claim the prac­tice of boil­ing pea­nuts began with Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers dur­ing the Civil War. Re­becca Orchant de­scribed the taste of boiled pea­nuts in the Huff­ing­ton Post last sum­mer:

Ima­gine if edam­ame tasted like pea­nuts and were fre­quently eaten with hot sauce. The pea­nut softens, some­times to mush if you like them like that, some­times just on the bor­der of crunchy and tender. Pur­ists will prob­ably balk at this (most boiled pea­nut-lov­ing South­ern­ers in­sist on wa­ter and salt only), but we’ve ad­ded every fla­vor­ing to boiled pea­nuts we can think of, from Old Bay to Ta­basco sauce to smoked paprika to curry powder.

Of course, no suc­cess­ful state snack cam­paign would be com­plete without a couple of med­dling kids. In New York, the idea to make it of­fi­cial with yogurt came from fourth-grade stu­dents from Byron-Ber­gen Ele­ment­ary School. In Illinois, the pop­corn pro­pos­al came from second- and third-grade stu­dents at Cun­ning­ham Ele­ment­ary School in Joliet. And in Texas, a group of third-graders from Mis­sion pushed for the le­gis­la­tion. Kino Flores, their loc­al rep­res­ent­at­ive, took up the is­sue, ex­plain­ing that it was “not a waste of time but rather a worthy way to in­volve young­sters in the demo­crat­ic pro­cess.”

Demo­cracy has nev­er tasted so good.

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