DON'T KNOCK IT UNTIL YOU TRY IT
Region: Florida Keys
Know those big, pink shells that wash up on ocean beaches and can be played like a horn? There's an animal inside those shells called a conch, a large tropical sea snail that taste like a cross between a clam and a squid. It's eaten in many different preparations, but it's especially popular chopped up and mixed into a fritter batter, then deep fried. Conch fritters were even dropped from a biplane as "bombs" when Key West attempted to secede from the U.S.
Region: Southern Louisiana
While popular in many other countries, blood sausages, tend not to be a widespread hit in the U.S. In Cajun country, however, there's a beloved sausage called boudin typically made with pig's blood, ground pork and white rice and flavored with onions, garlic and cayenne. It's eaten plain, smoked, or often as boudin balls, which are a deep fried version of the sausage. The iconic sausage is considered a local obsession and can be found all over the region at grocery stores, restaurants, even gas stations, and a party just isn't a party without boudin.
Region: Upper Midwest
The Upper Midwest is the land of casseroles thanks to its frigid weather that makes comfort food a must. Hotdish, a thrifty nostalgic staple perfect for the region's chilly temperatures, can come in many forms as long as it's baked in a single casserole dish, and is particularly a favorite in Minnesota and North Dakota. Some of the more popular variations include a single layer (or multiple layers) of tater tots along with a creamy filling of ground beef and cheese. There are many upscale versions of hotdish, but recipes with frozen vegetables and canned soup will always be the most popular.
If you're already a fan of sauerkraut on your pizza, you're probably from Minnesota. It's a popular topping in the state, usually located under a thick layer of cheese on a thin, cracker-like crust. The sauerkraut adds a sharp tang and melds well with the tomato sauce. If you're in the Twin Cities area, stop by a Red's Savoy Pizza, a favorite for local spot for sauerkraut pies.
GREEN CHILI CHEESEBURGER
The Southwest grows plenty of chiles, and perhaps none with more local pride than the chiles of the Hatch Valley in southern New Mexico, where chiles (and pinto beans) are the official state vegetable. People eat those chiles on everything, including cheeseburgers. The roasted green chiles are generally mild and are either used as a topping just as they are, or sometimes turned into a green chile stew which is ladled over the burger.
Region: Rochester, New York
The garbage plate, a regional icon of western New York, is a mishmash of several foods all piled together on one plate. It starts with a base of macaroni salad, home fries, and baked beans in any combination, which is then topped with a protein — hamburger patties are the most popular — and toppings like hot sauce, ketchup and onions. It's the specialty of Nick Tahou Hots, which has been around for a century and created the garbage plate as a cheap way to fill up industrial workers. Now, it's a favorite among college students, and one fraternity even holds an annual fundraising run where eating a garbage plate is part of the race.
Loco moco is in many ways the Hawaiian version of the garbage plate. A hearty dish unique to Hawaii, it usually consists of two scoops of white rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and brown gravy, but it can be made with other proteins and Hawaiian favorites like macaroni salad and kimchee. It's a cheap, fast meal usually eaten for lunch. Legend says the name comes from the nickname of the first teenager to request the dish: Loco. Moco is thought to have been added because it rhymed and simply sounded good.
LOOSE MEAT SANDWICH
Popularized by Iowa-based restaurant chain Maid-Rite, the loose meat sandwich is like a hamburger that hasn't been fully formed. The ground beef is cooked loose and piled on a bun, then topped with typical hamburger toppings. The sandwich is served with a spoon so you can eat all the meat that spills out. It's a nostalgic favorite for many Iowans.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN OYSTERS
Judging by the name, you might not be surprised to learn that Rocky Mountain oysters don't come from the sea at all. Also called calf fries, they're bull (or sheep, bison or pig) testicles which are skinned, sliced, and often battered and deep fried. Someone a long time ago figured that this was a great way to use up the avocado-sized testicles after castrating an animal, and why not? They're rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein.
PORK TENDERLOIN SANDWICH
Most pork tenderloin sandwiches are pretty comical: The flattened, breaded fried pork is many times wider than the bun it's served on. Which typically means you have to eat it with a fork and knife, at least at first. Mustard and pickles are the usual accompaniments to this tender classic, which makes sense when you consider it was the son of German immigrants who created the schnitzel-like dish, considered by many to be the unofficial sandwich of the Hoosier state, though it's also popular elsewhere in the Midwest.
BISCUITS AND CHOCOLATE GRAVY
Region: Southern Appalachia
We've all heard of biscuits and gravy, but what about biscuits and chocolate gravy? Swap out pork sausage for cocoa and sugar, and you've essentially got chocolate gravy, a regional favorite of Southern Appalachia. Serve it hot over fresh biscuits and it's practically dessert, especially if you add strawberries. It's a resourceful dish that requires few ingredients and has spread to other parts of the South.
SHREDDED CHICKEN SANDWICHES
In northern Ohio is a humble sandwich simply called the shredded chicken sandwich. It's served at parties, events, gatherings, and drive-ins and is made from chicken that's been shredded and mixed with stock thickened with flour or crushed crackers and served on a hamburger bun. There's even a website run by a shredded chicken devotee tracking and rating as many restaurants serving this dish as possible as a resource to fellow Ohioans.
The famously stinky Limburger cheese is made in only one place in the U.S.: the Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe, Wisconsin. (Naturally, considering it's the Dairy State.) You can get Limburger sandwiches in nearby taverns like Baumgartner's, which consist of hearty rye bread, sliced onion and brown mustard. There's a lot of strong flavors going on between those two pieces of bread, but they all work together.
Region: New York City
Contrary to its name, there is no egg or cream in an egg cream. It's a old fashioned drink that most likely originated in NYC's soda fountains. Flavored syrup, often chocolate or vanilla, and milk are mixed in a glass, then topped with soda water. It's foamy and refreshing, but rarely seen outside of New York, unless you decide to make your own (it's pretty easy!).
Freshly harvested peanuts are used to make a snack that's popular throughout much of the South, but often an acquired taste for outsiders, called boiled peanuts. The process is relatively simple, if time-consuming: boil whole, green peanuts in heavily salted water for hours until the nut is soft like a pea. Cajun seasoning or Old Bay are sometimes used to give them more flavor. It's not unusual to find roadside stands selling the snack.
Goetta is a spiced sausage of German origin that's popular all over the Cincinnati area. It was created as a way to stretch a little bit of meat, and uses oats as its filler. It's sliced from a loaf or tube and seared so that it's crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. You can get it almost everywhere as a breakfast meat, including at Glier's Goettafest where it's also served on pizza and in fudge.
ST. PAUL SANDWICH
Region: St. Louis
Found mostly in Chinese-American restaurants in the St. Louis area, despite what the name might suggest, the St. Paul sandwich consists of a thick egg foo young patty with lettuce, tomato, and mayo between two slices of white bread. It may have been invented as a way to make Chinese food more accessible to Americans decades ago, but no one's really sure. It's a delicious example of really early fusion cuisine, though.
Also sometimes called Alaskan ice cream, akutaq is a Yup'ik word that means 'something mixed.' Indeed, it's a dish that mixes some kind of fat, traditionally reindeer, seal, or polar bear, with fresh berries and snow to make an ice cream-like mixture. Native Alaskans have been eating it with the traditional recipe for thousands of years. Nowadays, though, vegetable shortening is often used and sugar is added to make it more dessert-like.
The mother-in-law is a sandwich served primarily on the south side of Chicago. A mass-produced beef tamale is placed in a hot dog bun and topped with chili. The tamales likely came to Chicago with Southern African-Americans, but no one's really sure how it was placed in a bun and topped with chili. The name, too, is a mystery, but it may have something to do with the heartburn both the sandwich and your relation give you.
Funeral potatoes is a casserole made with diced or shredded potatoes, cheese, canned cream soup, sour cream, butter, and sometimes a crispy topping. Its name comes from its popularity at after-funeral events, especially in Utah, not the fact that it'll take you to an early grave. It's also commonly known as cheesy potatoes or hash brown casserole throughout the rest of the country.
FROG EYE SALAD
The name frog eye salad doesn't conjure anything delicious, but it's not nearly as scary as it sounds. It's a dessert-like salad made with a type of tiny, round pasta called acini di pepe. The cooked, chilled pasta is mixed with canned fruit, marshmallows and whipped cream for a dish that's similar to what's known as ambrosia other places. It's pretty easy to make, so you'll see it at most potlucks in Utah.
Region: Mississippi Delta
Perhaps the strangest item on this list, a koolickle is a dill pickle that's been soaked in Kool-Aid, a creation that's largely considered to have originated in the Delta region of Mississippi. Usually, cherry or another red variety is used, resulting in bright red pickles. You can find them on deli counters, and they're not too dissimilar from sweet pickles, except for the neon color. Try them for yourself with a jar of pickles and a packet of Kool-Aid.
Spam became popular in Hawaii after it was distributed to troops during World War II. Hawaiians then combined their love of Spam with their love of sushi, and Spam musubi was born. The local favorite features sushi rice, seared Spam, and a nori wrap, and it's sold all over Hawaii, including convenience stores and upscale restaurants. It's so popular that even Obama has to have it when he gets back to Hawaii.
Not something you drink with, cheese straws are a long, thin type of cheese cracker. They're generally piped out of a bag like cake frosting or extruded out of a cookie press for a long, ridged shape. They're a great snack for nibbling and passing at parties, which is part of the reason why they became so popular during the 1950s and 1960s cocktail party craze.
Region: New Haven
Clams may not seem like the ideal pizza topping, but they are in New Haven. The city's signature clam pie is a white pizza made with chopped clams, garlic, olive oil, and Romano cheese. It's baked until crispy and lightly charred for a tasty complement to the soft clams. Frank Pepe's is the most popular spot to get it, but plenty of pizzerias sell it.
Region: Springfield, IL
An open-faced sandwich called the horseshoe is popular in Illinois' capital and dates all the way back to 1928. Toast goes on the plate first, followed by hamburger patties or ham, a handful of french fries, and cheese sauce. Really, it can barely be called a sandwich, but we're not going to split hairs when a plate of food is delicious.
Enjoyed since at least the Civil War, burgoo is a Louisville-area stew. It's historically been made with whatever could be thrown in the pot, including racoon, game birds, and squirrel. Today, it's usually made with more than one kind of meat, okra, lima beans, corn, and tomatoes, and cooked in large batches for fundraisers and community gatherings. Even the Kentucky Derby has its own recipe.
Region: Upper Midwest
Likely Belgian in origin, booyah is very similar to burgoo, except it's from the northern Midwest. It's a stew made with rich meat stock, along with vegetables and beef, chicken, or pork. It's generally made in huge pots, most often for large events. Northern Wisconsin has some of the best spots to get it.
Coddies are a snack food from Baltimore, in which salt cod — a type of dried cod that is preserved with salt — is reconstituted, flaked, and mixed with mashed potatoes, onions, and simple seasonings. The mixture is formed into small patties, breaded, and fried. The coddies are served with crackers and mustard, and most people make little cracker sandwiches with them. Like many economical foods, they went out of fashion for a while, but are starting to make a comeback.
Region: South Carolina Lowcountry
Like many traditional foods of the South, sesame seeds were brought to America by African slaves. They called them benne seeds, and eventually they were turned into benne wafers, a type of light, crispy cookie filled with sesame seeds that become nutty when toasted in the cookie. Today, they're a Southern dessert table staple.