In the Mid-Atlantic states including Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, a traditional food of the Pennsylvania Dutch is easy to track down: scrapple. It’s made by combining pork scraps and trimmings with cornmeal and seasonings, blending it into a mush, forming it into a loaf, letting it congeal, then slicing and pan-frying before serving. Don’t knock it until you try it: the first recipes date back to the 1600s and it’s been perfected over the years, so it’s pretty tasty. It’s also nothing short of beloved: there’s even an annual scrapple festival.
There are more than 50 locations of Runza in and around Lincoln, Neb., as well as one in Colorado, two in Iowa, and two in Kansas, and outside of that you’re simply not going to find their signature item, known as the runza. Sort of like a supercharged Hot Pocket, the Runza is a hot stuffed sandwich with Russian and Germanic origins, with the dough completely enveloping the filling. The classic, original runza is filled with a mixture of ground beef, onions, and cabbage, but the chain also sells them in cheese, Swiss mushroom, cheeseburger, and BBQ bacon varieties.
Cincinnati has a handful of regional specialties, most notably their famous chili-topped spaghetti. But there’s a regional food that’s just as popular but not nearly as famous, and it’s a German-influenced sausage known as goetta. A fine-ground mixture of ground pork, oats, and spices, the most popular variety is sold by Glier’s, which produces more than one million pounds of the stuff annually, with nearly 100 percent of it being consumed in the Cincinnati area. It was typically a breakfast food, but you’ll find goetta burgers, hot dogs, and pizza in the area; of course, there’s also a Goettafest.
In the early 1920s, Italian immigrants brought their traditional spiedini, or cubes of meat grilled on a skewer, to Upstate New York, where it took on a life of its own. Today, the meat used is traditionally chicken, and it’s marinated in a special mixture, grilled on skewers, then loaded into soft Italian bread, drizzled with a little more marinade, and served. Simple, delicious, regional, and worthy of a festival (and balloon rally!) of its own as well.
Head to St. Louis and you’ll find one of the most mouthwateringly-named foods around, gooey butter cake. The flat, dense cake originated in the 1930s and is found in just about every grocery store in the area but not outside of it: it’s a mixture of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs that’s baked and dusted with powdered sugar, and the result is rich, dense, and super-gooey.
The first thing you should know about turkey joints is that it isn’t what it sounds like: Invented at Nora’s Candy Shop in 1919, they’re still made at the Rome, N.Y. shop. So what’s a Turkey Joint? Silvery, hand-pulled ribbon candy envelops a mixture of chocolate and Brazil nuts, and today you can also find them chocolate-covered or filled with peanut butter. Only available October through May, these crunchy, sweet snacks are quite possibly the best candy you didn’t know existed.
In 1978, Henry Lopez opened Henry’s Puffy Tacos in San Antonio, and a legend was born. They don’t differ much from a traditional taco, except for the fact that the raw corn masa tortillas are fried in hot oil. Instead of becoming a traditional crunchy taco shell, they puff up into a light, fluffy folder for the fillings, and the results are delicious. You’ll find puffy taco joints all throughout Texas, but most are still located in San Antonio.
The cheesesteak might be The City of Brotherly Love’s most enduring contribution to the culinary world, but the snack that’s most closely associated with the city is in fact the soft pretzel, and it’s made there in a style not found anywhere else. Most of these pretzels come from the Philly-based Federal Pretzel Baking Company (America’s first large-scale soft pretzel factory), or the Philly Pretzel Factory chain (the world’s largest Philly-style pretzel bakery). The long, soft pretzels look different from others you’ll find, and you shouldn’t leave Philly without trying one.
Kolache (plural for kolach) are a type of filled dough with Czech roots that have become very popular in many parts of Texas, as well as parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The majority of the ones you’ll find envelop a dollup of fruit with soft, semisweet dough and are eaten for dessert or as a breakfast pastry, but some also include meat, bacon and eggs, and basically anything else the baker wants to include. While they’re most popular in Texas, word is finally starting to spread: a shop specializing in them recently opened in Brooklyn.
The pork roll (also known as Taylor ham) is something you’ve most likely eaten in New Jersey. It’s a slightly-smoky breakfast meat that resembles bologna, and it’s typically sliced and pan-fried or grilled before being paired with egg and cheese on a roll, in a crazy-good gutbuster of a sandwich known as the Jersey Breakfast.
Upstate New York was home to a booming Sicilian population in the early decades of the 20th century, and like spiedies many traditional Italian dishes took on a regional life of their own. Nobody knows exactly who invented chicken riggies, a pasta dish usually involving chicken, rigatoni, and hot or sweet peppers in a spicy and creamy tomato-based sauce. And yes, there’s a Riggiefest.
Ask someone who loves food what their first culinary stop in New Orleans will be, and they’ll most likely tell you Café du Monde, for some beignets and chicory coffee. To make a beignet, squares of choux paste are deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar, and there’s really nothing else like it anywhere, even at carnivals. They’re light, dense, crunchy, and soft all at the same time, served piping hot, and one of the finest pastries on earth. Good luck trying to find the real deal outside of New Orleans, though.