State Pride, Via Soil, Milk, Popcorn, Pork

Think all dirt's pretty much just plain, old, ordinary dirt?

Wrong.

Just as the Slosheye Trail Big Pig Jig is the official pork barbecue championship cookoff of Georgia, and the yellowhammer is Alabama's bird, Monongahela is the official state soil of West Virginia.

"Dirt's not just dirt," says Jim Ware, a soil scientist with the Soil Survey Division of the Department of Agriculture's National Resources Conservation Service.

In fact, several states have named official soils over the past 25 years -- following a trend that has broadened state symbols beyond the traditional flags, mottos, birds and flowers. Now, we have stuff like state 'possums (Pogo 'Possum in Georgia), crustaceans (blue crab in Maryland) and snacks (Jell-O in Utah).

When you look at each state's dozen or more symbols as a whole, "they say something about the state, if you're not too satirical about it," says Benjamin F. Shearer, co-author of "State Names, Seals, Flags and Symbols," a book aimed at schoolchildren. "Every once in awhile, people say we shouldn't be doing this, taking up people's time and money. But it's been going on for years and years."

Expanding Upon Tradition

Actually, it's a tradition revived in recent decades from earlier this century.

Then, as now, it seems politicians sought to tie themselves to popular symbols. Schoolteachers and their students campaigned for state objects to highlight the legislative process. And lobbyists pushed to have their products given official designation -- perhaps for pride, perhaps for profit.

"When this started, which I think was in the 19th century, there was the idea [by] a lot of garden clubs, state arbor societies, they were interested in promoting their causes with state flowers and state trees," Shearer says.

Shearer's book updated a similar 1930s volume, "State Names, Flags, Seals, Songs, Birds, Flowers and Other Symbols," which documented the first big wave of state objects.

The 1930s book served school kids well -- for a while. But it didn't encompass waves of creativity in the 1960s and 1970s, when jousting became the state sport of Maryland, tomato juice the state beverage of Ohio, and the bolo tie the state neckware of Arizona, among other things.

Shearer's 1987 version quickly became outdated too. The very next year, Oklahoma came up with another new idea -- an official state meal, according to netstate.com, a Web site that lists state symbols. The meal consists of fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecue pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken-fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas.

That may not seem like such a great match for the state beverage, milk, which since 1981 has become state drink or beverage in nearly 20 states. But milk clearly complements food items in other states where it shares official status, including Vermont's state pie -- apple -- and Minnesota's state muffin -- blueberry.

Though a report claims the dairy industry campaigned for milk's official recognition by states in the 1980s, Terri Verason, a spokeswoman for the National Dairy Council, had no idea why so many states chose milk. Still, she is pleased they did: "It's something that's wholesome and healthy, and why wouldn't states choose it as their state beverage?"

Perhaps it's more obvious why orange juice is the state beverage of Florida, dog mushing is the state sport of Alaska, hula is the state dance of Hawaii and the Appalachian dulcimer is the state musical instrument of Kentucky. It takes a bit more digging to know why the Tully monster is the state fossil of Illinois (the soft-bodied animal swam in an ocean there millennia ago) and Kool-Aid is Nebraska's official soft drink (it was developed there).

'There's a State Everything'

Shearer and his wife have had to produce regular editions of their book to keep up with it all.

"Between 1998 and 2001, there were, I think, about 200 changes, so it hasn't stopped," Shearer says.

Just last year, for instance, a grade-school class in Joliet, Ill., pushed popcorn as the state's official snack food.

"They took a poll to see if they wanted potato chips, pretzels or popcorn, and popcorn won," says Beverly Edman, a legislative aide to state Sen. Lawrence M. Walsh. "They asked the senator to sponsor it, and he did. And the third-graders watched it go through the process.

"There's a state bird, there's a state fossil, there's a state everything," she adds. "So why shouldn't there be a state snack? It was a lighthearted moment that the state Legislature went along with."

'A Total Waste of Time'

But are state legislatures always the right places for such lighthearted moments?

Pennsylvania Rep. Kelly Lewis says he once backed a measure to establish a state tartan, but he's since changed his outlook. Earlier this year, he was on the short end of a 177-22 vote in the House to make Hazleton the state soil.

"I don't mean to pick on the people who think state soil is an important thing in life, but we've got serious issues in Pennsylvania and serious issues in the country, and concentrating on whether we've got a state soil or not is a total waste of time," he says.

"These legislators that put this stuff through, it's usually a favor to somebody in their district," Lewis adds. "In Pennsylvania, they actually fight over whether it's going to be the polka or the square dance that's going to be the state dance, and they actually lobby on each side of this … and there are people in Pennsylvania who are losing jobs."

'Soil Is … the Foundation of Our Economy'

To Ware, soil is worthy of state honors. In fact, the federal agency he works for has helped identify approximately 23,000 distinct families, or "series," of soils across America, each capable of supporting distinct crops, forests or construction projects.

The first official state soil, Nebraska's Holdrege soil, was established in 1979, Ware says. Since then, at least 19 other soils -- including Houdek (South Dakota), Chesuncook (Maine) and Bayamon (Puerto Rico) -- have gotten official state or territorial government nods. Active legislation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey soon may yield two more.

Ware also is helping the Smithsonian Institution prepare an upcoming exhibit on the economic and historic importance of the nation's soils. A vertical cross-section of Missouri's Menfro soil is scheduled to go on display next month as a preview of what will be a much larger exhibit.

"Soil is really the foundation of our economy, when you get right down to it," Ware says. "A lot of the rise and fall of nations in the world depended upon the soil resources that they had."