America is a huge country with immense variation in climate and topography and a diverse population drawn from hundreds of nations around the world. These factors add up to incredible variety in what we eat.
Despite the unstoppable expansion of homogenous fast-food places across the land, every region, every state, probably almost every town and city has its own way of cooking and combining foods and discovering things to eat that other places disdain or ignore. (Strange or otherwise, here’s a list of the most iconic dish from every state.)
The most vivid showcases for American regional food variations – and imagination – are state and county fairs, known for their sometimes silly but often tasty (and frequently heart-burning) inventions.
24/7 Tempo has assembled a list of some of the strangest foods not just at fairs but in America in general, state by state, by reviewing articles on the subject in a wide range of publications, including Mashed, Spoon University, Travel Channel, Cheapism, and Bizarre Food.
Some of the most unusual foods, not surprisingly, come from the South, one of the country’s richest culinary regions. Here are 20 iconic Southern foods every American should try.
Our list includes unlikely mash-ups such as New Mexico’s green chiles on an ice cream sundae or Massachusetts’ chow mein sandwiches. It also includes localized ingredients such as Louisiana’s nutria or Washington’s geoduck, and sometimes it includes specific creations unique to a single restaurant, such as North Dakota’s 5th Bro hot dog or New Jersey’s Overloaded Oreo bagel.
“Strange” is, of course, a subjective term. For instance, most of us don’t eat a lot of the more specialized organ meats – pig’s intestines (chitterlings), fish liver, duck tongues – but to people in whose cultures these are daily fare, they’re anything but weird. (A few such things are included here.)
It should be stressed that just because the foods on our list might be considered strange, they aren’t necessarily unpleasant. Some of them may seem like bad ideas, but many of them are genuinely delicious. And all of them are worth at least considering if you’re someplace where they’re served.
> Weird food: Banana and mayonnaise sandwich
NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr., who once called this sandwich his favorite use for mayo, may have been born in North Carolina, but the sandwich is identified primarily with Alabama. The banana does its best, but the mayo dominates.
> Weird food: Stinkheads
The name says it all: These are salmon heads buried for weeks until they ferment and, well, stink. They’re considered a delicacy by the indigenous Yupik people but are most likely an acquired taste (and aroma) for the rest of us.
> Weird food: Diamondbacks’ Cheeseburger Dog
Arizona is known for its over-the-top Sonoran hot dogs, wieners topped with pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, and numerous other condiments. The Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team has gone the Sonoran one better. Their cheeseburger dog is a sausage-shaped “dog” formed out of char-grilled burgers, then deep fried and served with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a “secret sauce.” It’s available only at the team’s home stadium, Chase Field in Phoenix.
> Weird food: Pork brains and eggs
When they’re scrambled, pork brains take on a similar consistency to eggs, so the combination makes sense. The brains are surprisingly mild, if the idea of eating zombie-style doesn’t bother you. Grits are the perfect accompaniment.
> Weird food: Coconut toffee brittle Bugitos
As its name suggests, San Francisco’s “snackeria” and food purveyor Don Bugito specializes in insects and related creatures. The Bugitos are toasted mealworms glazed with melted sugar and topped with organic coconut.
> Weird food: Smoked rattlesnake
Look for this appetizer of chopped-up smoked rattler on a cream cheese base, served with multi-color tortilla chips at Denver’s Buckhorn Exchange restaurant.
> Weird food: Steamed cheeseburger
A specialty of Ted’s in Meriden but found elsewhere in the area, too, this is a burger that’s topped with cheese and steamed on a tray in a custom steamer. The burger, not surprisingly, is very moist, and the cheese drips down and encloses it.
> Weird food: Slippery dumplings
These are large, very thin, strangely textured rectangles of dough that slip and slide until they’re anchored in a dish of chicken with mashed potatoes.
> Weird food: Peanut butter and jelly burger
The version of this burger at Brgr Stop in Coconut Grove cheats a little: the “jelly” is tomato jam. Other Floridian restaurants use actual sweet fruit jelly. Cheddar and bacon is often added, too, because Florida. (The version at Disneyworld’s ESPN Club adds jalapeños.)
> Weird food: Peanuts in Coke
Pop the cap off a bottle of Coke, pour in some shelled salted peanuts, let the soda fizz up a little, then drink it (and them) down. People perform this ritual in other parts of the South, but it seems definitively Georgian given that peanuts are such an important crop there and that Coke is headquartered in Atlanta.
> Weird food: Spam musubi
Hawaiians consume about 7 million cans of Spam a year and host the world’s largest Spam festival. One popular way of eating it is in the form of musubi, a variation on Japanese onigiri, in which grilled Spam is enclosed in a square of sushi rice and wrapped in nori seaweed.
> Weird food: Finger steaks
No, we’re not talking Hannibal Lecter here. Considered Idaho’s signature food, these are simply strips of buttermilk-marinated steak breaded and deep-fried, then served with barbecue or cocktail sauce.
> Weird food: Spaghetti pizza
Spaghetti is good. Pizza is good. Are the two together double-good? A lot of people apparently think so. Angelo’s Pizzeria, which has three locations west of Chicago, claims credit for the invention. Sausage and mozzarella are also involved.
> Weird food: Sauerkraut balls
Fermented cabbage isn’t the first thing you’d think of deep frying – unless you were a Hoosier. Associated with the state fair and with the Indianapolis 500, these are a mix of sauerkraut, pork sausage, and cream cheese, with mustard added, formed into spheres, breaded, and plunged into boiling oil until crisp and brown.
> Weird food: Kumla
These heavy Norwegian ham-and-potato dumplings are a specialty of Story City, north of Des Moines. They’ve been described as “Norwegian sinkers,” and one fan, who claims to be able to eat no more than three at a sitting, notes that 10 of them would make competitive eating champ Joey Chestnut throw up.
> Weird food: S’more burger
The Girl Scouts should sue. A bar and grill in Wichita came up with this unnecessary improvisation on the classic burger. Yes, it’s actually topped with marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers.
> Weird food: Benedictine
Intimately associated with the Kentucky Derby – and not related to the French liqueur of the same name – this is a spread made with cucumber, onion, cream cheese, mayonnaise, and sometimes green food coloring. It’s used on canapés, as a dip, and in sandwiches. It might be considered a sort of baby food version of the cucumber sandwiches served at English teatime.
> Weird food: Nutria
“Dinner” is not the first thing you’d think of when you see one of these large, web-footed, semi-aquatic rodents. They’re considered an invasive species, destroying crops and levees in Louisiana, and sites like Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em publish recipes for nutria – though it hasn’t really caught on yet as an entree.
> Weird food: Tomalley
Tomalley, that pungent green goop in the body of a lobster, is the creature’s digestive gland. Most people probably throw it away, but connoisseurs in Maine save it to spread on toast or whisk into sauces or softened butter.
> Weird food: Barbecue muskrat
Muskrats look sort of like small versions of nutria (to which they are not related), and they too get eaten. There are even a couple of festivals featuring muskrat in the state. The creature has lean, dark meat, full of tiny bones. One popular way to serve it – in Maryland as elsewhere – is barbecued.
> Weird food: Chow mein sandwich
Available at Chinese American restaurants throughout southeastern Massachusetts, this is just what it sounds like: a heap of chow mein on a hamburger bun. Order it “strained” (the noodles with just meat) or “unstrained” (with meat and vegetables)
> Weird food: Dessert nachos
At the Detroit Lions’ Ford Field in Detroit, fans can sample this curious mashup – tortilla chips topped not with melted cheese and salsa but with cinnamon, sugar, smoked-chocolate-cherry Nutella sauce, chocolate-covered cherries, sprinkles, and whipped cream.
> Weird food: Tater tot hotdish
The hotdish is a staple all over the Midwest. It’s a main course casserole, sometimes called Minnesota’s unofficial state dish, involving some combination of starch, protein, and vegetable. Typical ingredients might be ground beef, canned vegetables of various kinds, and cream of mushroom soup stirred together, then topped with chow mein noodles, potato chips, or – classically – tater tots, then baked.
> Weird food: Pea salad
Peas (almost always frozen) dressed with mayonnaise and mixed with diced onions and maybe some cheese are all that’s needed for this popular picnic dish.
> Weird food: St. Paul sandwich
This curious concoction is a relative of the chow mein sandwich popular in parts of Massachusetts, except that this is made with an egg foo young patty on white bread, with such condiments as dill pickles slices, mayonnaise, and lettuce and tomato. It has no connection with the Minnesota metropolis of the same name.
> Weird food: Rocky Mountain oysters
You can eat these even if you have a seafood allergy – as long as you’re not squeamish. Rocky Mountain oysters – also known as prairie oysters, cowboy caviar, and Montana tendergroin, among other things – are eaten all over the West and parts of the Midwest. They are bull calf testicles, breaded and fried and usually served with a dipping sauce.
> Weird food: Raisin pie
Raisins are great in trail mix and in raisin bread, but a whole slice of pie filled with nothing but these already cloyingly sweet dried grapes sweetened further with sugar and bound with cornstarch? Maybe not.
> Weird food: Belly of the Beast Burger
America has no shortage of excessive burger presentations, but this Las Vegas monstrosity, created at a place called Truffles N Bacon, has them all beat. It’s a 10-and-a-half-pound slab of ground beef topped with four sunnyside-up eggs among many other things. It can reportedly feed six to eight diners. Or maybe Joey Chestnut.
> Weird food: Grape Nuts ice cream
Those hard little pebbles called Grape Nuts seem like the quintessential cereal for austere New Englanders, lacking color or sugary frosting. In New Hampshire, though, they are turned toward indulgence – not in a breakfast bowl with milk and sugar but by stirring them into ice cream.
> Weird food: Overloaded Oreo bagel
Another entry in the too-much-of-a-good-thing sweepstakes, this time from the Bagel Nook in Freehold, these chocolate-and-vanilla-swirled bagels are topped with Oreos mixed with cookies and cream cheese. Have your lox on the side.
> Weird food: Green chile sundae
Caliche’s in Las Cruces is known for its frozen custard, but it doesn’t just top the various flavors with the usual sweet sauces, sprinkles, and the like. The specialty it calls the New Mexican is a big dish of frozen vanilla custard crowned with chopped green chiles and sprinkled with salted pecans.
> Weird food: Pizza box pizza
You can put spaghetti on your pizza if you want to, as at Angelo’s in Illinois (see above) – but why introduce pasta into the equation? Why not just pile pizza on – or rather into – pizza. The specialty at Vinnie’s in Brooklyn is the pizza box pizza, a small pepperoni pizza enclosed in a larger one that’s folded over to form a box.
> Weird food: Livermush
It’s liver, all right, of the pork variety, mushed together with morsels of pig’s head meat and cornmeal, formed into rectangles, and fried into something that has been described as looking like burnt Pop-Tarts.
> Weird food: 5th Bro hot dog
You don’t have to be from Arizona to improvise on the all-American hot dog. DogMahal DogHaus in Grand Forks offers a number of variations on the theme. The 5th Bro is the most outrÃ© – a beef frank topped with cream cheese, mango, relish, and Padang pineapple sriracha.
> Weird food: Goetta
Related to North Carolina’s livermush and Pennsylvania’s scrapple, this German-inspired sausage made of ground pork (sometimes mixed with beef) and pinhead oats is a specialty of Cincinnati and of Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. It’s best when fried crisp, but at the annual Goettafest, it ends up in burritos, moo shu tacos, omelets, and potato skins, among other things.
> Weird food: Catfish wontons
Fried catfish is a tasty entree. Wontons, generally filled with ground pork, are a tasty appetizer. This variation on crab Rangoon brings the two together, and why not?
> Weird food: Pacific lamprey
Lamprey are long, eel-like fish with sucker-like mouths and no scales. They have long been an important food source for Indian tribes in the Columbia River Basin, prized for their rich, fatty meat. You won’t find them in Portland’s trendy restaurants, though. While not on the endangered list (yet), they are considered a species of concern.
> Weird food: Scrapple
Known in Pennsylvania Dutch as Pannhaas (“pan rabbit”), scrapple is a mush of cornmeal and wheat flour (sometimes with buckwheat flour added) and a whole array of pork scraps, including head, heart, and liver. Ohio’s goetta and North Carolina’s livermush (see above) are not dissimilar.
> Weird food: Pizza strips
If you like leftover cold pizza for breakfast, you’ll like these. Pizza strips are basically thickish pizza dough, almost like a focaccia, formed into a rectangle, covered with tomato sauce (no cheese), baked, then cut into strips and eaten at room temperature – to the delight of many Rhode Islanders.
> Weird food: Boiled peanuts
Unless they’re allergic, almost everybody loves peanuts. But only Southerners – especially South Carolinians, for whom they are the official state snack food – understand these. Raw, sometimes green, peanuts are boiled in their shells in salted water. They’re easy to peel and soft and good if you eat them right away, but they grow slimy quickly.
> Weird food: Chislic
Tiny cubes of meat – traditionally lamb or mutton, but sometimes beef or venison (or other game meats) – are deep fried until crispy, flavored with garlic salt or other seasoning, then popped by the handful or dipped into ranch dressing or other condiments. Sometimes the meat is marinated first and/or battered before frying.
> Weird food: The Fat Elvis
The late great Presley is honored (dissed?) all over America with renditions of his purported favorite sandwich – lots of peanut butter and mashed bananas on white bread, sometimes dubbed the Fat Elvis. (Some versions add bacon.) Tennessee, the home of Elvis’s famed mansion Graceland, has a particular claim on it, though, and it is widely sold in the neighborhood.
> Weird food: Frito pie
This is one of those curiosities that’s really very good. In its purest form, it’s just a bag of Fritos corn chips (invented in Texas) – one of those metallic-lined bags, not the plastic kind – into which are spooned chili (no beans) and grated cheese. There are more elaborate versions, but that’s the pure Texas way and it’s hard to beat.
> Weird food: Pickle pie
This Utah specialty is said to have been invented at the SunGlow Family Restaurant & Motel in Bicknell, in the south-central portion of the state. It’s just what its name suggests: chopped sweet pickles flavored with cinnamon and allspice and baked into a pie crust. The filling is said to resemble tangy mincemeat
> Weird food: Sugar on snow
There are only two ingredients in this wintertime dessert: fresh-fallen clean snow and maple syrup, ladled over it. It’s a Vermonter’s sno-cone.
> Weird food: Cownose ray
This plump, thick-snouted stingray was once accused of destroying the oyster population in Chesapeake Bay, though it has since been acquitted of the crime. Its wings, however, are almost as much of a delicacy as those bivalves. They’ve been cut into rounds and substituted for scallops, but it can also be made into kabobs or fajitas, among other things.
> Weird food: Geoduck
Pronounced “gooey-duck,” this is a giant clam with an obscene-looking protruding body that it can’t retract into its shell. Its meat is tough but tastes good and is often found in sushi bars.
> Weird food: Fried squirrel
Hunters used to bring home squirrels for dinner when they couldn’t catch anything better, and in fact, the meat is said to be quite good – sweet and nutty, like a cross between rabbit and (what else?) chicken. It’s still appreciated in West Virginia, which hosts an annual Squirrel Fest, and where frying is a preferred method of preparation.
> Weird food: Cheese curds
Cheese curds aren’t all that strange as long as you don’t mind eating something that squeaks. When making cheese, the milk is acidified and coagulated, separating the whey from the solid part – the curd. Curds are then pressed into a mold to form cheese. Curds that don’t get pressed just stay curds – and in Wisconsin and other dairy states, they’re enjoyed fresh by the handful like popcorn. (They’re also the correct cheesey component of Quebec’s famous poutine.)
> Weird food: Jackalope summer sausage
There’s no such thing as a jackalope. It’s a joke animal – a jackrabbit with antlers. The Wyoming Buffalo Company in Cody doesn’t let that stop it. The company makes a hickory-smoked salami-like summer sausage from “jackalope” that’s actually a not-inappropriate blend of rabbit, venison, and pork.