LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
Join SoFAB on May 25, 2011 in Washington, D.C. for the D.C. Roundtable Discussions: Advances Against Obesity. More information at www.southernfood.org.
It is fascinating that our various states in this United States have adopted state flowers and various animals and catch phrases to represent themselves in addition to a state flag. These symbols represent geography, as well as a literal reflection of how the state views itself, and as how the state wants itself seen by others. This is early branding by each state, much as the US chose the eagle as a national bird for the majesty that it communicated instead of choosing Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion of the tasty turkey.
But these early marketing steps are not as commercially promotional as the more recently adopted state foods. I rather like the idea of a state representing itself by adopting a groaning table full of its bounty. And even though large states like Texas, with many regional differences in food heritage and geography may have a larger table than a smaller state, a unique bounty can still be represented.
But in today’s world the marketing potential really inures to the products and not in the state. If milk, which is the wholesome state beverage in several states, wants to say that it is the state beverage of Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana (to name only a few), you might be inclined to want to drink milk. But the concept of uniqueness is certainly diluted by the communal adoption of the beverage. Florida has adopted orange juice as its official beverage. And the growers in Florida have branded their juice as Florida grown, implying an unspoken level of quality, which is reasonable given the fact that no other state has adopted orange juice as its official state beverage.
But other than marketing value for products, what exactly do we gain if the product adopted by a state legislature on behalf of its citizenry merely reflects the lobbying efforts of the industry in that state? The state soft drink of Nebraska is Kool-aid and the state soft drink of Maine is Moxie. Louisiana was unwilling to define the state with a single state cocktail, so it defined the city of New Orleans with the official city cocktail, the Sazerac. That provided the press with a good deal to discuss during the time immediately surrounding the act. Now bartenders can suggest the Sazerac to tourists as the official cocktail of the city. That sells product.
These official acts of state legislatures have made official things like grits (Florida) and barbecued pork (the state meal of Nebraska). Reading the list gives you an amazing array of the bounty of the entire country, lets us observe repetitions as trends and watch how the adding of yet another food in a given state – Louisiana in particular – becomes pure marketing with almost no meaning. In the end it seems harmless. There seems little danger that this official status will actually influence what we choose to eat. But it is an interesting reflection on the state’s identity and an interesting use of the legislative process by industry. For a list of state foods, with citations of the legislative acts, go to http://www.netstate.com/states/tables/state_food.htm. For beverages go to http://www.netstate.com/states/tables/state_beverages.htm. Why not?