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Shearer's 1987 version quickly became outdated too.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?"

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