21 Surprising Regional Food Favorites You’ve Never Heard Of
Traveling around the United States brings a chance to try new food—new to you, anyway! Here are some classics from around the country that you don't see at home.
Kool Aid Pickles (Mississippi)
These are exactly what they sound like: pickles soaked in Kool Aid. Found in the Delta region of Mississippi, they sometimes go by the name “Koolickles.” If you have a craving, you can make your own. The cherry flavor is traditional, but choose whatever color Kool Aid you like. For full Kool-Aid saturation, cut the pickles lengthwise in half before brining, or start with spears.
Chocolate Gravy (Appalachia)
In a lesser-known variation on the famous biscuits and gravy, some Southerners make a thick chocolate gravy to go with their biscuits. The combination of luscious chocolate and flaky biscuits is a special-occasion treat; this is not an every weekend indulgence. The gravy has a consistency somewhere between hot fudge sauce and chocolate pudding.
In the American southwest—especially Arizona and Texas—residents sometimes call rattlesnake “desert whitefish.” The venomous snake is served up in all imaginable ways: breaded and deep-fried, in chili and stew, grilled or sautéed with butter and herbs. The most common dishes are rattlesnake chili and barbecued snake meat.
In Alaska, reindeer turns up on lots of restaurant menus, as well as in supermarket meat cases in the form of sausage and hot dogs. Reindeer store fat on the outside of their muscles, resulting in incredibly lean meat.
This traditional Hawaiian dish gets a raw deal from tourists, who usually try it once when visiting the islands. The grayish-purple mass can be visually unappealing, but it’s not intended to be eaten as a main course. Poi is made by steaming the corm, or the root of the taro plant, then pounding it into paste. Poi can either be “sweet” (fresh) or “sour” (fermented), and is served as an accompaniment to salty foods, like kalua pork or island fish served raw or cooked.
You might not have access to raw taro or poi, but you can make your own Kalua Pork to get a taste of Hawaii.
Pork Scraps (Regional)
German immigrants brought a traditional dish made of pork scraps (use your imagination, and don’t ask too many questions)—to the United States, and different pockets of settlers all developed their own flavor. Each dish consists of the leftover parts of the pig, boiled with some sort of binder, then pressed and baked in a loaf pan. The loaf is sliced and fried, usually as a breakfast food. In Pennsylvania, it’s scrapple (made with cornmeal); in North Carolina, it’s livermush (similar, but with more liver); and in and around Cincinnati, it’s goetta, and made with steel-cut oats and either beef or pork. Recipes for homemade scrapple and goetta call for ground pork or sausage—and they’re delicious.
Alligator (Gulf Coast)
In the Gulf Coast states, alligators turn up even more frequently on menus than they do in people’s swimming pools. Down in Florida, gator meat is cut in to chunks and deep-fried, like chicken, or mixed up and fried as fritters. In New Orleans, you can get sausage made with alligator and pork, or order a spicy etouffee stew that contains gator.
Provel Cheese (Missouri)
This processed cheese (think Velveeta) is a mixture of provolone, cheddar and Swiss cheese (with some liquid smoke thrown in for added flavor). It’s especially popular on hamburgers and pizzas. Provel cheese is the definition of a local specialty—practically no one outside of St. Louis, Missouri has heard of it.
Cheese Curds (Wisconsin)
Curds are one of those foods that outsiders have never heard of, but people from the region can’t believe outsiders have never heard of. They’re produced as part of the cheese-making process. (Think curds and whey, like Little Miss Muffet.) The fresher the curd, the better the “squeak” it makes when you eat it. In the upper Midwest—Wisconsin, especially—curds are a longstanding favorite, and are eaten both fresh and deep-fried.
Fry Sauce (Utah)
If you order a burger in Utah, it’ll likely come with a pink, vaguely familiar sauce that you didn’t ask for. Don’t worry — it’s simply a premixed offering of mayonnaise and ketchup that’s served alongside French fries in the Beehive State. You can even buy it bottled! Other parts of the country may call it strange, but they’ve wholly embraced various dipping sauces for their fries, so what’s the difference, really?
Lutefisk (Minnesota, North Dakota)
Lutefisk wears its Nordic heritage proudly, and is a seasonal tradition in Scandinavian communities in upper Midwestern states like Minnesota and North Dakota. It’s dried whitefish, soaked in lye and then boiled, resulting in a gelatinous food that’s served at Advent, in the beginning of the holiday season.
In the center of a cooked lobster is a soft green mass; it’s a digestive gland that, according to those who love it, has an ultra-concentrated lobster flavor. The tomalley can be eaten as-is, or used in soups and sauces. It’s definitely a thing in Maine cooking, although we’d prefer to stick with the tails.
Buffalo Ribs (Arkansas)
Order ribs in Arkansas—and you won’t be getting pork or beef. They’re actually from a freshwater whitefish called the buffalo fish. The ribs are surprisingly large, and are served deep fried, of course. They also go by the name “fish ribs” to distinguish them from buffalo chicken, pork and beef ribs in a Buffalo sauce and actual buffalo (bison) ribs.
Clam Pie (Connecticut)
There are a couple of different dishes that go by the name “clam pie.” The New England potpie-style dish (also known as Cape Cod Clam Pie) while delicious, isn’t all that surprising. But clams on pizza? That’s what you’ll find in Connecticut—clams, removed from their shells, and used as a topping on a white-sauce pizza.
Geoduck (Pacific Northwest)
A deep-water clam, the geoduck live along the coastline of Washington and British Columbia. The raw clam can be strange to look at—even intimidating, at up to three feet long. But of course you don’t eat the whole thing in one go; it’s sliced and served up in stir fries, deep-fried, sautéed in butter or thinly sliced and eaten raw, like sashimi.
Pickled Pigs Feet (South)
One of those dishes that hasn’t traveled much outside the South, pickled pigs feet are exactly what they sound like. The pigs feet are slow-cured in white vinegar, salt and spices, then preserved in jars. Also known as “trotters,” they’re usually eaten straight from the jar with hot sauce.
Dutch Letters (Iowa)
These pastries aren’t often seen outside of Iowa, which is a shame, because they’re delicious. The crisp pastries are filled with almond paste and topped with sugar; while they’re traditionally made in an S-shape, the pastry chef has the final say! If you want to make your own, we’ve got the recipe.
Butter Burger (Wisconsin)
For visitors to Wisconsin, it may seem strange to have a generous pat of butter on top of your burger, but it’s the Dairy State — why wouldn’t they do this? If you’re looking for an alternative, you could always go to Connecticut, where they steam burgers, rather than frying them. The cheese is steamed separately and poured over the burger like a sauce.
Peanuts in Coke (South)
Eating peanuts in Coke is a tradition that’s embraced from Texas to the Carolinas and some parts of Virginia, but would raise eyebrows anywhere else. To do it right, drink some of the soda to make room, then pour in a package of salted peanuts. The origins of this practice are debated, of course, but the most common explanation is that it was started by truck drivers and other workers as the best way to keep a hand free (or free of peanut oils) during work.
Garbage Plate (New York)
For a garbage plate, you’ll need to go to upstate New York. It starts with potatoes (home fries or French fries), macaroni salad and baked beans. Top that with some kind of food that would normally be the center of its own sandwich—hot dogs, sausage, chicken tenders, eggs. Finish it off with mustard, chopped onions and a ground beef chili. Nick Tahou Hots, a Rochester restaurant, is generally accepted as the home of the original garbage plate.
Gumbo Potato Salad (Deep South)
If you order gumbo in the deep South, it might come with a dollop of potato salad floating on top (or on the side). Even within the region, opinion is split on this one—those who swear by it and those who have never heard of it. Stirring the potato salad into the gumbo would be a faux pas; instead, take a spoonful of the potato salad, dip in the gumbo and eat. To try it at home, make one of our recipes for gumbo, either with chicken and sausage or seafood, and whip up a potato salad that has no eggs or pickles.