We’ll say it: Food is the best part of summer—and every state has a favorite summer treat, from deep-fried delicacies at county fairs to just-caught seafood on the docks. When the weather is warm, it’s the best time of year to get your fruit freak on and go all-out with backyard barbecue. Or head to a seasonal festival and indulge in local oddities like boiled peanuts, sauerkraut balls, and ice cream potatoes. Many of these foods are at their peak or only available in the summertime, while some just taste best on a hot, sunny day. When you travel across the United States this summer, seek out these seasonal eats, grab a seat at the picnic table, and dig in!
Alabama: Fried green tomatoes
You can turn them into pickles, jam, or salsa, but green tomatoes approach the divine when breaded with cornmeal and fried. Crunchy on the outside and smokin’ hot in the middle, these juicy treats are often served in the South with a zesty remoulade or a dollop of pimento cheese. And nobody does it better than Alabama. Bite into heaven at the Irondale Café, the hangout that helped inspire the movie Fried Green Tomatoes.
Alaska: King crab legs
Brave souls on fishing boats risk their lives to haul in these colossal crustaceans—and to create reality TV gold on Deadliest Catch. King crab legs are succulent, especially expensive, and totally worth it. Try them at their freshest with a side of melted butter at Tracy’s King Crab Shack on the Juneau waterfront.
Once upon a time, a chef accidentally dropped a beef burrito into the deep fryer and the chimichanga was born. Or so the story goes. Multiple Arizona chefs take credit for this serendipitous mistake, but others claim that the chimichanga arrived with Mexican immigrants from Sonora. One thing is certain: This crispy burrito is all over Arizona. Pair it with a prickly pear margarita while gazing at a crimson desert sunset.
Sinking your teeth into a chunk of ruby red watermelon and letting the juice drip down your elbows is a quintessential summer experience, and Arkansas grows some mighty fine melons. (In the past 100 years, the state has produced some of the biggest ever seen, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.) Embrace melon mania at the Hope Watermelon Festival in August, a sticky-handed extravaganza with seed-spitting contests, live gospel music, and a giant melon auction. Pro tip: Add a dash of salt to your slice to make it taste even sweeter.
California: Fish tacos
Eating a fish taco by a sun-splashed beach is an essential California experience. Ask a local for the best fish taco around and you’ll get a different answer every time, from grilled mahi-mahi teriyaki with pineapple to crispy, Baja-style fried white fish with cabbage and crema. Choose from a huge variety of fish tacos and enjoy killer views on the side at the South Beach Bar & Grille in San Diego’s neo-hippie neighborhood of Ocean Beach.
Summer in Colorado means scorching days, dry air, and chilly nights—the perfect conditions for growing some of the sweetest cantaloupes on the planet: Eden’s Gems. These heirloom muskmelons are better known by their brand name, Rocky Ford cantaloupes. Pioneer G.W. Swink first planted them in Colorado in 1887, and by 1896, train cars packed full of the green-fleshed melons were being shipped as far as New York. Rocky Ford cantaloupes are ripe starting in late July and the season continues for about seven weeks.
You’ll encounter these brilliant gems all over Connecticut at pick-your-own berry farms, the perfect places to source this delicate and highly perishable fruit. Raspberries are red and ready to devour from early July through mid-August. They only keep for one or two days in the fridge, so hurry up and make those raspberry tarts, raspberry pancakes, and raspberry smoothies.
Delaware: Fries with cider vinegar
A day at the seashore in Delaware is about simple pleasures: the sound of crashing waves, the smell of ocean breezes, and the taste of steaming-hot fries with punchy cider vinegar. Score a bucket of this local specialty at Thrasher’s—it’s the only food it sells—and stroll down the Ocean City boardwalk.
Florida: Key lime pie
Tiny and intensely aromatic Key limes impart their pucker-worthy flavor to this light and smooth dessert. Legend has it that sponge fishermen in the Florida Keys invented the pie because all of its ingredients could be carried on boats without refrigeration. Eat your weight in pie at the Key Lime Festival, held annually around the Fourth of July in the Conch Republic (that’s Key West to me and you).
Toss a little butter, sugar, and cinnamon together with cut peaches and you have a recipe for rapture. Peaches need intense heat to grow well, and summertime in Georgia delivers. Pie is a favorite here, but cobbler is easier to make—and no one in the South wants to linger in the kitchen when the temperature hits the high 90s. Sample peach cobbler, peach pie, and peach everything at the Georgia Peach Festival in early June. (Note: While peach season is still in full swing, this year’s festival is over; mark your calendar for next year!)
Hawaii: Shave ice
Hawaii’s delectable frozen concoction is not called “shaved ice,” and it’s certainly not the same thing as the snow cone, which uses crunchy granulated ice. Soft, satiny shave ice is totally worth the brain freeze. Mom-and-pop stands all over the islands dish out these Day-Glo mountains of frozen sugar water. Get crazy with wild color combos or add a lump of ice cream underneath. Opt for President Barack Obama’s favorite flavors of cherry, lime, and melon at Island Snow in Kailua on Oahu; the combination apparel store and shave ice spot is his go-to.
Idaho: Ice cream potato
Don’t worry—there’s no potato in this potato. Vanilla ice cream is rolled into an oval, patted down with cocoa powder, split along the middle, and topped with a whirl of whipped cream. Sprinkles of chopped nuts or cookie crumbles finish the baked potato doppelgänger, which is usually presented on a lake of hot fudge. You can find this spud-lover’s dessert in Boise at Westside Drive In.
Illinois: Chicago-style popcorn
Popcorn is the official state snack food of Illinois, but Chicago takes it to the next level. A candy store owner from Chicago created the steam-powered popper in the 1890s, a move that blew the lid off of the treat’s popularity. These days, locals line up at Garrett Popcorn shops across the city to buy bags of Chicago’s favorite flavor: a can’t-quit-you cheese and caramel combination that’s perfect for a summer picnic or a day game at Wrigley Field.
Indiana: Sauerkraut balls
Crusty on the outside and tangy in the middle, fried sauerkraut balls are in demand at the Indiana State Fair in August. Many Hoosiers boast German heritage, and these easy-eating orbs are a tasty marriage of Old World cuisine and the U.S. love of deep frying. Many of these sweet-sour balls have pork fat add-ins like sausage or ham.
Iowa: Corn on the cob
Endless rows of silk-headed corn cover the fields of Iowa starting in midsummer, and 99 percent of the harvest is turned into livestock feed, manufactured goods, ethanol, or processed corn products. Only 1 percent of the corn grown is the sweet variety that you gnaw off the cob, those buttery, juicy ears that burst out of farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Enjoy all the corn you can eat—for free—every August at the Sweet Corn Festival in West Point.
Kansas ribs are slow-smoked in giant pits until crisp and burned on the tips, then slathered with a syrupy sauce. You’ll stumble upon stellar barbecue joints all over this breadbasket state, with menus stuffed full of beef brisket, peppery chicken wings, and Czech-style sausage. But our favorite is the ribs. Just follow the smell of the smoker to Joe’s Kansas City or Bite Me BBQ for fall-off-the-bone goodness.
Kentucky: Fried chicken
Eaten hot out of the frying pan or cold with pickles at a picnic, fried chicken is synonymous with summer. The world knows about Kentucky’s finger-lickin’ delight thanks to the tireless efforts of Colonel Sanders, but Scottish immigrants actually brought the recipe to the United States. You could visit the first KFC in Corbin, or try the Save-A-Lot deli on Southland Drive in Lexington—locals swear it sells the best fried chicken in the state.
Briny, spicy, and sweet—this baguette-based sandwich is loaded with fried crawfish, oysters, or shrimp. Po’boys originated in 1929 during a streetcar conductor strike, when Bennie and Clovis Martin of Martin Brothers Coffee Stand slapped together quick, simple sandwiches to feed the “poor boys.” Now you can find po’boy sandwiches all over Louisiana, from gas station counters to high-end restaurants.
Maine: Lobster roll
It’s understated perfection: fresh lobster meat on a grilled, split-top hot dog bun with a little lemon and butter, plus a sprinkling of herbs. Grab a table by the harbor and watch the wooden schooners sail out into Maine’s Penobscot Bay with a lobster roll in your hand, and you’ve discovered the ultimate New England summer day. Head to the Rockland Lobster Festival in August where lobster lovers consume almost 10 tons of the other-other white meat annually.
Maryland: Blue crab
Snatched from the frigid waters of Chesapeake Bay, the blue crab (aka the Maryland crab) is usually seen in crab cakes, crab dip, and crab soup. But this tasty crustacean is most flavorful when steamed and served whole on the waterfront at places like Mike’s Crab House and Cantler’s Riverside Inn. Sit down and get crackin’—and bring along a six-pack of Natty Boh (National Bohemian), Maryland’s cult classic beer.
Massachusetts: Fried clams
Cape Cod’s delectable clams are rightfully famous. For hardcore clam lovers, the only way to eat them is to dig the clams up yourself and blaze them in a traditional clambake right on the beach. For the rest of us, dockside restaurants in Massachusetts dish out clams all season long. Nosh on scrumptious fried clam strips at Woodman’s of Essex, whose founder claimed to have conceived the idea in 1916 “on the humorous suggestion of a friend.”
Most of the nation’s tart cherries are grown in Michigan, which is home to the “Cherry Capital of the World”: Traverse City. Encounter mountains of cherries here every year around the Fourth of July at the National Cherry Festival. Fork into fluffy cherry pancakes and nibble on just-picked cherries from the farmers’ market, all in a breezy waterfront setting with concerts, parades, and barbecue picnics.
In a state with thousands of lakes filled with thousands of fish, the walleye reigns supreme. Supply peaks in the warmest days of the year, luring Minnesota’s many fishermen and women to the lakes. Walleye can be smoked, fried, or grilled on a stick. Locals feast on oodles of the flaky fillets at Friday fish fries, which are held regularly at churches, restaurants, and veterans’ organizations—and you can too.
Mississippi: Fried catfish & hush puppies
Coated in cornmeal and sizzled until crispy, catfish is true down-home cuisine. In Mississippi, you can count on it being served with creamy coleslaw, french fries, and of course, hush puppies. They say that during fish fries in the late 1800s, hunters gave fried cornbread to their dogs to “hush up” their barking; today these deep-fried treasures are catfish’s constant companions. They can be shaped either like balls or cylinders and both are equally delicious.
Missouri: Waffle cones
All ice cream aficionados have heard the story about the ice cream vendor at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair who ran out of bowls for ice cream and started using rolled-up waffle cookies instead, creating the first ice cream cone. In reality, ice cream cones were being produced in New York City the decade before, but the treat really took off in Missouri, especially after the Missouri Cone Company was founded in 1910.
Purple huckleberries are foraged wild in Big Sky Country; their refusal to be cultivated reflects the freedom-loving ethos of Montana itself. These plump little jewels appear in everything from huckleberry flapjacks with huckleberry syrup to huckleberry turnovers, cheesecake, and bear claws. Celebrate these tasty mountain berries every August at the Huckleberry Festival in Trout Creek.
Nebraska: Tin roof sundae
Back in the era when ice cream was sold alongside cocaine pills and opium tonic, the son of a pharmacist dreamed up the tin roof sundae in Potter, Nebraska. The confection is a wicked combination of salty and sweet: a scoop of chocolate ice cream with hot fudge topped by a scoop of vanilla ice cream with warm marshmallow cream and Spanish peanuts. Try the sundae right where it started at the Potter Sundry.
Nevada: Dirty martini
Is a martini a food? It is in Vegas. Is it a summer food? It is if you drink it in the summer, right? Fuel your adventures by ordering it “filthy” with extra olives and juice for additional sustenance. While Las Vegas is the land of all-you-can-eat buffets, there’s something to be said for the effortless elegance of a straight-up, stirred martini. Duck out of the desert heat and sip this swanky cocktail at the Mandarin Bar for Rat Pack atmosphere and classic Vegas views.
New Hampshire may only have a few dozen miles of coastline, but the state’s love of seafood runs as deep as the Atlantic Ocean. What’s more, New Hampshire’s inland lakes, rivers, and wetlands are home to 10 native species of freshwater mussels. While some are endangered, others (like the eastern elliptio) are plentiful, packed with protein, and absolutely delicious tossed with a bright pasta salad.
New Jersey: Saltwater taffy
Wander down the boardwalk in Atlantic City with a bag of these melt-in-your-mouth candies and discover what the Jersey Shore is really all about. Saltwater taffy was invented in the late 1800s when a storm surge washed into a candy store and drenched the taffy. Or perhaps an assistant cook accidentally substituted saltwater for fresh water in the recipe. Whatever tale you believe, you’ll find the original treat at Fralinger’s on the boardwalk.
New Mexico: Green chile cheeseburger
Burgers sizzle on grills across the United States all season long—but New Mexico spices things up with a pile of green chiles on the patty. Now a statewide obsession, green chile cheeseburgers were pioneered at The Owl Bar in San Antonio, which is about an hour south of Albuquerque. Its recipe hasn’t changed since 1948.
New York: Buffalo wings
Buffalo’s own Anchor Bar claims to have created buffalo wings in 1964 when the restaurant’s cofounder threw something together to feed her bartender son’s inebriated friends. From drunk buddies in Buffalo to sports fans across the world, the spicy chicken bits have taken flight as an iconic game-time munchie and backyard barbecue staple. Over 1,000 pounds of buffalo wings are now dished out daily at the site of the fortuitous kitchen experiment.
North Carolina: Pulled pork sandwich
Chopped or pulled? It doesn’t matter how you slice it, barbecue in North Carolina means pork–usually piled high between two buns and partnered with coleslaw. Pick your side in the battle between East and West: Eastern-style sloshes a vinegar-based sauce over white and dark meat, while Western/Lexington-style barbecue is dipped in a ketchup-based sauce. This is a fight where everybody wins.
North Dakota: Strawberry-rhubarb pie
With poisonous leaves and stringy stalks, rhubarb is an unlikely choice for the table. But hardy pioneers on the North Dakota prairie turned this hard-to-kill plant into a prize: strawberry-rhubarb pie. The acerbic, scarlet-colored stalks are harvested in early June before they toughen up. Diced rhubarb is then paired with strawberries and sugar—lots of sugar—to create lip-smacking pies, preserves, puddings, and even wine.
Have you ever eaten a hillbilly mango? How about a Quaker delight or a poor man’s banana? These are all names for the pawpaw, an obscure U.S. tree fruit that you’ve probably never tried. Pawpaws (not papayas, which are known as pawpaws in many countries) grow in southern Ohio, where residents can’t get enough of their banana-mango-kiwi flavor and custard-like texture. At the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, you can taste pawpaw ice cream, salsa, tamales, and beer!
Oklahoma: Fry bread tacos
Chewy, homemade fry bread is the secret behind this fusion food, which blends Oklahoma’s Native American heritage with Mexican cuisine. When Native Americans were forced onto reservations in the state, the displaced tribes were often requisitioned flour, salt, and lard. They turned these three ingredients into something new: fry bread. The pillow-soft circles are often polished off with a slosh of honey, but they’re even more popular as taco shells filled with ground beef, shredded cheese, tomato, and lettuce.
Only in Bridgetown could people who don’t eat meat besides bacon and sushi become known as “Portland vegetarians”—that’s how much people love sushi in this gastronomically alternative city. (After all, it may not be vegetarian, but sushi is lactose-free and nut-free, as well as gluten- and soy-free if you forgo soy sauce.) Trendy enclaves sling sashimi to hipsters (both vegetarian and otherwise) all over the friendly city, and the raw delicacy is particularly refreshing during Portland’s narrow window of summer weather. Critics are raving about the recently opened Nimblefish, where Edomae-style sushi is served on an old-growth blue pine table, of course.
Fresh from the oven and twisted by hand, pretzels dipped in mustard are a classic Pennsylvania street food. Invented in Europe in the Middle Ages, pretzels came to the United States via German immigrants. Soft knots are sold out of street carts all over Philadelphia, but if you prefer your pretzels crunchy and hard, check out the bakery tour at Snyder’s of Hanover, where you can bask in the pretzel-scented air.
Rhode Island: Hot wieners
Don’t call it a hot dog. Known as “hot wieners” or “New York System wieners” in Rhode Island, these frankfurters are made with veal and pork and smothered with a mild, not-quite-chili beef gravy. Request it “all the way” and you’ll also get celery salt, onions, and yellow mustard in your steamed bun—or falling out of it, as the case may be. Accompany your messy non–hot dog like a local with a glass of coffee milk, another Rhode Island favorite.
South Carolina: Boiled peanuts
Simmered in a seasoned brine for hours, raw, shell-on peanuts soak up the liquid’s flavor and become tender like beans. South Carolina’s official state snack was introduced in the early 1800s by African slaves who cooked the nuts to help preserve them. Boiled peanuts are in season from July through September. They’re sold hot or cold (and still in their slip-off shells) at roadside stands across the state.
South Dakota: Chislic
South Dakota’s beloved meat on a stick is snapped up at bars and restaurants from Sioux Falls to the Badlands. It’s not quite a shish kebab; chislic is fried instead of grilled, and there aren’t any punk vegetables to break up the party. Cubed red meat (beef, mutton, or venison) is served on or off the skewer and sidled next to saltine crackers. Pair it with an ice-cold beer.
Tennessee: Banana pudding
This make-ahead dessert is ridiculously easy to whip up and totally refreshing. Dig your spoon down through layers of velvety pudding, slivered bananas, and vanilla cookies, which have turned soft after sitting in the mix. While Tennessee’s upscale restaurants now serve banana pudding made of from-scratch elements, there’s not a kid in the South who hasn’t chowed down on the throwback combo of bananas, Nilla wafers, and instant Jell-O pudding.
Texas: Beef brisket
In some places, the smell of summertime is cut grass, coconutty sunblock, or ocean breezes. In Texas, it’s beef brisket. Smoked whole and sliced thick, brisket is savory, charred salvation. And while every day is a good day for brisket in Texas, this dish really shines in the season of barbecues and long, lazy days. Franklin’s in Austin gets all the press, and indeed its brisket is exquisite. But if you’d rather not wait in a three-hour line for lunch, just ask a local for a favorite barbecue joint. Fantastic, underappreciated pit masters work their smoky magic across the state from El Paso to Texarkana.
Utah: Frog’s eye salad
No amphibians were harmed in the making of this dish. Frog’s eye salad epitomizes Utah cuisine, which is inspired by Mormon prudence and pantry staples. Tiny, ball-shaped pasta is mixed with whipped topping, crushed pineapple, and mandarin oranges. Marshmallows and coconut might be added as a garnish if you’re feeling flamboyant. The finished dish is similar to Southern ambrosia salad, except for the substitution of sensible pasta balls for the floozy maraschino cherries.
Phish Food. Chunky Monkey. Cherry Garcia. When two kooky friends opened an ice cream parlor in Burlington in 1978, they changed the world forever (for ice cream lovers, anyway). Back then, they churned out flavors in a wooden tub freezer, serving cones out of a converted gas station with no heat. Although the original Ben & Jerry’s is now just a plaque in the ground, you can head to the factory in Waterbury for a tour or order a double scoop at one of the many shops that have popped up across Vermont.
Virginia: Pimento cheese
No potluck or church picnic in Virginia would be complete without this Southern staple. Pimento cheese spread is as unpretentious as it gets, a childhood classic that never grows old. The best recipes choose straightforward ingredients over flashy ones: sharp cheddar cheese, plain mayonnaise, and minced roasted red peppers from a tiny jar. Just don’t tell anyone at the picnic that pimento cheese actually originated in the North.
Washington: Grilled salmon
In the Pacific Northwest, every sunny day is precious and should be relished—and that means eating outside as much as possible. Summer is the season of the salmon run, when the smoky smell of fish grilling on cedar planks permeates the forested land. Native Americans first grilled salmon this way, and today it’s a specialty at Duke’s on Alki Beach in Seattle. Be sure to nab a seat on the deck.
West Virginia: Pepperoni rolls
Created by Italian immigrants who needed nonperishable lunches in West Virginia’s coal mines, pepperoni rolls are easy to handle and easier to love. These chewy yeast rolls are traditionally stuffed with a no-frills pairing of cheese and pepperoni, the juices of which infuse the bread when they melt. Pepperoni rolls are everywhere in West Virginia, and they’re also included in the meal kits of the U.S. military’s infantry and airborne troops in combat around the world.
Wisconsin: Fried cheese curds
When cheese curds are fresh, they squeak. When they’re dipped in batter and deep fried, they could save the world. Break the internet. Banish all manner of the blues and bring about world peace. Salty, cheddar-like curds are actually a by-product of cheese making, and there’s plenty of that going on in Wisconsin. Chew your way to nirvana on a path paved with cheese curds every July at the Cheese Curd Festival in Ellsworth.
Wyoming: Buffalo jerky
Road tripping through Wyoming? Hiking in Yellowstone? Fuel your adventures with bison jerky, made locally across the state and sold in every roadside stop and gas station. Fine restaurants are also getting in on the cowboy snack, with fancy-pants charcuterie plates of buffalo jerky and artisan cheese. You can also see the nation’s largest herds of bison in Wyoming (and the largest number of tourists trying to snap selfies with the wild and dangerous beasts).