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American foods worth the trip

Oct. 10, 2012 at 10:34 AM ET

Whoopie pie
Alexandra Grablewski / ThinkStock
The "whoopie pie" consists of thick vanilla cream sandwiched between two chocolate cakes (shaped like thick cookies). In 2011, this caloric classic became Maine's official state treat.

There are some foods that just don’t travel well, and we don’t mean in Tupperware. Some foods are so tied to a place that trying to recreate them or generate a passion behind them anywhere else would be a fool’s errand. There are some foods that, for one reason or another, stick to their proverbial ponds and only a few have made a name for themselves outside those culinary boundaries. But if you were to ask a local to recommend the one thing to try in their hometown, the unanimous answer would be the mystery dish; Pennsylvanians would say scrapple, you’d hear all about johnnycakes in Rhode Island and in South Carolina they’d suggest a heaping helping of Frogmore stew.

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All of these iconic foodstuffs come from such different histories and were created because of very different wants and needs. The Nebraskan runza, for example, originated in Russia in the 1800s and worked its way to Germany before becoming a Nebraskan specialty that, if you really get down to it, shares its home turf with Kansas. In Kansas, though, they bake their runzas in a rectangular shape rather than in the typical Nebraskan triangle. In contrast, Maine’s well-known whoopie pies originated in the U.S., though their exact origins are still debated.

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Foods like loco moco in Hawaii, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain oysters and garlic fries in Gilroy, Calif., have begun to creep into the country’s culinary lexicon, but it’s an accepted fact that these delicacies should really be enjoyed in their place of origin. So whether its Washington D.C.’s unique half-smokes or kolaches found in Texas Hill Country, these foods are a glimpse into what feeds this country in all its nooks, crannies and corners.

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Whoopie pie: Maine
Does this confection originally hail from Maine or Pennsylvania? The matter is much disputed by the two states, but in 2011, the whoopie pie became Maine's official state treat. The caloric classic consists of thick vanilla cream sandwiched between two chocolate cakes (shaped like thick cookies). Supposedly, during the Depression, a woman in Maine was baking a cake. She had a little remaining batter so, being frugal, she put two small rounds of batter on a baking sheet and when they came out, sandwiched them with frosting in the middle. She exclaimed, "Whoopie! It worked!"

Johnnycakes: Rhode Island
Johnnycakes, or johnny cakes, come from small coastal Rhode Island towns, where grist mills were grinding corn into cornmeal as early as the 1700s. A johnnycake is a sort of flatbread made of cornmeal, popular in the area since local climate conditions were too harsh to grow much wheat. Johnnycakes are crunchy on the outside, soft within and are often served with honey, maple syrup or other sweet dipping sauces.

Cheese curds: Wisconsin
Wisconsin is known for nothing if not its cheese, and cheese curds are among the most popular snacks in the state. Cheese curds are the solid bits of young cheese, largely Cheddar, and are also known as "squeaky cheese," because their rubbery texture squeaks against your teeth as you eat them fresh — they're best when as fresh as possible. Cheese curds are found all over the state, from county fairs to local bars, and come in flavored, plain or deep-fried versions.

Frogmore stew: South Carolina
Also known as a Lowcountry boil or a seafood boil, Frogmore stew is a long-cooked dish that combines shrimp, sausage, freshly-shucked corn and red potatoes with mild crab boil seasonings. It's almost more of an event than it is a dish, drawing family and friends around a large boiling pot and a newspaper-covered table.

Runzas: Lincoln, Neb.
A runza is a Nebraskan specialty that few have heard of outside the state. It is similar to a pierogi — dough shaped around a savory stuffing. Runzas apparently originated in Russia in the 1800s before gaining ground in Germany and finally migrating to the U.S. Traditionally, the yeast dough is filled with beef, cabbage, onions and spices, though variations on the theme add garlic, peppers, sausages and chili.

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