Wasps, meat pies and clogging: America’s most bizarre official state symbols

Civics lessons for kids become state symbols for the rest of us. Everybody wins.
A tarantula hawk wasp, the official state insect of New Mexico. Photo credit: Renee Grayson via Creative Commons.

It is a story as familiar in Trenton as it is in Columbus, Topeka, Harrisburg or Olympia: A group of school children learn about the legislative process by proposing a bill to make something – an animal, cookie, fruit, plant, vegetable, sport, anything really – an official state symbol.

The strategy often works. The kids charm the lawmakers, the lawmakers enjoy a benign distraction and, voila, the state gets yet another symbol to add to its ceremonial list of official things, and the students get a civics lesson.

Ohio lawmakers couldn’t manage to pass a critical bill naming the sugar cookie the official cookie of the Buckeye State. The sweet idea, first introduced back in 2019 at the request of a group of third graders, is likely to make a comeback in next year’s legislative session.

(Word has it the butter substitute industry objected to butter being listed as a main ingredient of sugar cookies in the bill language. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jessica Miranda, a Democrat, said she is willing to work with concerned parties on the language.)

Butter versus margarine is not the only controversy ensnaring state symbol proposals. Consider the ongoing debate in Florida over whether to choose a replacement for the Northern mockingbird as the Sunshine State’s official bird.

Every state has their own set of symbols and titles. Here are the ten weirdest official things that states have adopted as their own:

Natchitoches Meat Pie: Louisiana appears to be the only state with an official meat pie. A version of this popular pork-and-ground-beef-filled pie dates to the late 1700s (the name comes from the Natchitoches Indian tribe), although it has only been a state symbol since 2003. Each September, meat pie lovers gather in the town of Natchitoches for a Meat Pie Festival where the festivities include the obligatory meat pie eating contest.

Whoopie Pie: Since 2011, the Whoopie Pie has been the official state treat of Maine. Described as “two chocolate cake-like rounds surrounding a white cream filling,” it has been filling bellies in Maine since the 1920s.

Clogging: Many states have official dances – the square dance is especially popular – but North Carolina and Kentucky went with clogging. Technically, it is the official folk dance of North Carolina. Often an accompaniment to bluegrass music, clog dancers wear special shoes that “make a loud percussion noise with the toe or heel … to make a rhythm.” Check out this video to see it for yourself.

Tully Monster: The Tully monster, Illinois’s official state fossil since 1989, is a swimming carnivore that lived an estimated 300 million years ago, when the state was covered by an ancient tropical ocean. It was first discovered in 1958.

Brewer’s Yeast: From the nothing-is-too-small-to-be-a-state-symbol files, Oregon lawmakers in 2013 designated brewer’s yeast (formally known as saccharomyces cerevisiae) as the state’s official microbe. The sponsor of the bill, former state Rep. Mark Johnson (R) of Hood River, a town known for its breweries, told NPR at the time: “I’m not aware of any other microbes that generate $2.4 billion for the state economy.” Not to be outdone, in 2021 Illinois lawmakers designated Penicillium rubens NRRL 1951, the mold that led to the mass production of penicillin, as their official state microbe. Lawmakers in Wisconsin debated a resolution in 2010 to make Lactococcus lactis, also known as the cheese-maker microbe, the official microbe of Wisconsin. 

Jousting: Lots of states have official state sports — dog mushing in Alaska, surfing in Hawaii and California, and, this year, pickleball in Washington State — but only Maryland claims the medieval sport of jousting. Described as the “world’s oldest equestrian sport” and “combat training for the cavalry,” jousting historically involved two people on horseback charging at each other with lances in hand. The goal was to knock your armor-clad opponent off their mount. Nowadays, there is a much safer version that involves facing off against hanging rings. Jousting has been Maryland’s official state sport since 1962. In 2004, lacrosse became the state’s official team sport.

The Teddy Bear: In 2002, the Mississippi legislature named the teddy bear the official state toy. The law came a century after President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt came to Mississippi and went on a bear hunting outing with then-Gov. Andrew Longino. As the story goes, Roosevelt refused to shoot and kill a black bear that had been tied to a tree for the purpose of giving the president a chance to bag a trophy. Roosevelt’s sportsmanship earned him praise and led a New York couple – Rose and Morris Michtom — to make a stuffed bear called “Teddy’s Bear.” While we are on the topic, there has been an on-again, off-again push in Pennsylvania to make the Slinky, a Keystone State invention, the state’s official toy.

Tarantula Hawk Wasp: New Mexico’s official state insect is downright terrifying. Click here to see for yourself. The state legislature designated this thing the official state insect back in 1989. Tarantula Hawk wasps can grow up to two inches long; they are known for having “one of the most painful stings on the planet.” Where do they get their name? While the wasps seek nectar from flowers, it turns out the female wasps also hunt tarantulas to feed their larvae. To see that particular form of torture, watch here.

Kool-Aid: Oh yeah! Invented in Hastings, Neb. in 1927, Kool-Aid earned the designation as the state’s official soft drink in 1998 with a declaration from then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D). According to an Associated Press story from the time, Nelson made the pronouncement at an event at the Capitol that featured “Kool-Aid Man” who hugged the governor. “Welcome back to Nebraska, your birthplace,” Nelson quipped. But not everyone was pleased with the governor’s decision to elevate a brightly colored, sugary drink to state officialdom. “I think (Kool-Aid’s) a bad choice. It’s not a healthy beverage,” Dr. Gary Westerman, a dentistry professor, told the AP at the time. Nelson’s spokesman, Karl Bieber, retorted: “Well, they do have sugar free Kool-Aid.” To this day, you can attend the Kool-Aid Days Festival held each August at the fairgrounds in Hastings.

Gusty the Cartoon: It is windy in Oklahoma, to put it mildly. That makes the name of the Sooner State’s official cartoon character, Gusty, especially appropriate. Gusty was the creation of a Tulsa TV weatherman named Don Woods who, in the 1950s before fancy graphics, would sketch his forecasts on live TV. Gusty was his character. “He would react to the forecast,” Woods, who died in 2012, recalled in a 2007 interview. “If it was raining, he’d have an umbrella. If it was a tornado warning or watch, he’d dive in[to] his radio.” While weather forecasting technology quickly evolved, Woods kept drawing Gusty until he retired in the late 1980s. The Oklahoma legislature made Gusty the official state cartoon character in 2005 and Gusty even made it to the Smithsonian Institute.

Milk: Nearly half the states, 22, list milk as their official state beverage. But this one doesn’t come from school kids — it comes from lobbyists, who helped the milk industry market itself to lawmakers in the 1980s. 

Want to know more about your state’s official symbols? Check out State Symbols USA, a helpful and handy website.