Nothing brings people together during winter’s dark months like food, and the holidays are a perfect excuse for celebratory feasts with friends and family. While there are universal favorites — think eggnog, pumpkin pie, gingerbread — many parts of the U.S. have favorite foods and drinks that would be almost unheard-of in another locale. Whether celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, a few days off work, or none of the above, don’t miss a chance to expand the menu and enjoy a few of the nation’s favorite regional holiday foods.
Feast of the Seven Fishes, New Jersey
Devout Catholics in Italy (particularly southern Italy) observe Christmas Eve as La Vigilia — a day of fasting or, at least, abstaining from meat before the gastronomic celebrations of Christmas Day. Italian immigrants continued this tradition in abundant American fashion, with magnificent seafood feasts featuring fish, shellfish, and fried delicacies such as calamari, smelts, and artichokes. Often served after a visit to Midnight Mass, the Feast of the Seven Fishes may include baccalà (salted cod fish) along with seafood pasta and a hearty stew like cioppino. In New Jersey, the Italian tradition has only grown more popular, and many restaurants open their doors to hungry guests with expansive menus featuring elegant offerings such as lobster and caviar.
Gooey Butter Cake, Missouri
So rich that for many people it’s often a holiday-only indulgence, gooey butter cake is a sweet staple in St. Louis. Created in the 1930s and served in squares like a brownie, the flat (barely an inch high) cake consists of a layer of butter and yellow cake topped with a sweetened mixture of cream cheese and eggs, heavily dusted with confectioner’s sugar. It’s most often served as a special treat alongside a cup of coffee, rather than as a traditional after-dinner dessert.
Kalua Pork, Hawaii
A must at any Hawaiian feast any time of year — but particularly the holidays — this luau favorite is traditionally cooked in an imu, an underground pit that’s lined with lava rock, which is then covered with kindling. Wet banana leaves are placed over the glowing rocks, and a whole pig is lowered into the pit and topped with more leaves before the imu is covered, leaving the pig to steam for hours. Modern techniques like slow cookers and Instant Pots are now often employed, resulting in sticky-sweet strands of pork.
Green Chili, Colorado
Yes, there’s also traditional gravy, but families at holiday dinners in Colorado also pass around green chili, for pouring on mashed potatoes, stuffing, and turkey. The thin, orange-flecked sauce combines pork, garlic, tomatoes, and fiery roasted Pueblo chiles to make a delicious Mexican-inspired sauce that’s the pride of the Centennial State. Bonus: It’s delicious ladled over other local specialties like breakfast burritos.
Wild Rice Stuffing, Minnesota
Minnesota is the undisputed capital of wild rice in the United States, growing more than any other state in the country. The nutty, tasty grain (technically a water-grown grass seed, not rice) was not only adopted as the state's official grain in 1977, but long before that it was also a staple crop in the diet of Chippewa and Sioux Native Americans. Today, wild rice takes pride of place on holiday tables in the form of stuffing, often accented with pecans and cranberries.
Deep-Fried Turkey, Louisiana
If you fry it, they will come. Cajuns first immersed the traditional Thanksgiving bird — suggested by Benjamin Franklin to be our national fowl — in boiling hot oil, and the nation followed. Surprisingly not greasy, deep-fried turkey emerges from its peanut oil bath with shatteringly crisp skin and moist meat in a relatively short amount of time, leaving ovens free for holiday casseroles and those all-important pies. Its popularity has spread far beyond the confines of Louisiana, but be sure to know what you’re doing — nothing spoils a holiday like a deck fire.
Tamales, New Mexico
Nothing says “the holidays” in the Southwest states like heaping plates of tamales. The dish is lovingly crafted as a group project by many hands that shape the masa (dough made from corn flour), insert the supremely tasty fillings, and then wrap the bundles in soaked corn husks — before they’re steamed to savory perfection. Filled with roasted meats, vegetables, cheeses, or sweets, tamales are always a highly anticipated treat, especially during the holidays.
Oyster Stew, Massachusetts
Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, the Atlantic’s rich bounty of mollusks is especially appreciated during the holiday season, when plump, briny oysters are highlighted in dishes like creamy, delicious oyster stew. Enriched with cream, seasoned with paprika, and garnished with crisp oyster crackers, oyster stew is a Christmas Eve tradition in many a festive household in Massachusetts and beyond. Many families also add the tasty morsels to traditional bread-based stuffings.
Crab and Citrus Salad, California
Taking advantage of nature’s gifts, holiday tables in the Golden State are rarely without a multicolored healthy and beautiful salad. At a time of year when much of the nation deals with cold and snow, California has a bounty of fresh vegetables and fruits — and an abundance of in-season Dungeness crab that makes for a unique spin on holiday traditions. Try one with rich dark greens, crunchy almonds, fresh citrus, puckery persimmons and pomegranates, buttery avocado — and plenty of decadent, delicious crab.
Cheese Ball, Wisconsin
With its German heritage and cow-sustaining plains, Wisconsin is well-known as “America’s Dairyland.” (Even their own football fans affectionately refer to themselves as “cheeseheads.”) So it’s no surprise that many holiday appetizer spreads are headlined by zesty cheese balls that make the most of the state’s abundant cheddars. While everyone has their favorite recipe, the classic includes rich cheddar mixed with cream cheese (chevre if you’re fancy), and livened with a splash of Worcestershire sauce. The resulting savory sphere is then rolled in chopped nuts (usually walnuts or pecans), often with a little fruit (such as dried cranberries) and parsley for color.
Lefse, North Dakota
Scandinavians who settled in the upper Midwest brought their own traditional culinary favorites, including lefse, which is particularly popular at Christmas. Similar to a tortilla or a crepe, these tender flatbreads are made from chilled mashed (or riced) potatoes, bound with a scant amount of flour and a bit of fat (usually butter, but sometimes lard or cream). The dough is then thinly rolled into circles, and quickly browned on a griddle. Smeared with butter and spread with lingonberry jam, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, or rolled around meat and eggs, lefses are guaranteed to make even non-Norwegians say, “Uff da!”
Corn Pudding, Virginia
Native Americans introduced European colonists to the continent’s delicious corn, and the plump kernels remain a favorite, particularly at Thanksgiving. Southern states embrace a rich and sweet corn casserole, and Virginia’s premier version of corn pudding is eagerly awaited on holiday tables. Enriched with cream or milk, thickened with cornmeal, spiced with nutmeg, and drizzled with butter, corn pudding emerges from the oven as a fluffy, soul-satisfying side dish that tempts everyone to enjoy a second helping — especially with another slice of Virginia ham.
Funeral Potatoes, Utah
Although die-hards grate their own potatoes, we won’t judge if you reach for a bag of frozen hash browns. The ultimate in carbohydrate-rich comfort food (despite the name), funeral potatoes make a welcome appearance at funerals, potlucks, and festive holiday occasions. A homey riff on the classic French potatoes au gratin, funeral potatoes pack a flavorful punch with cheese, onions, creamy sauce, sour cream, and a crispy broiled topping of buttered flakes or crushed potato chips.
Coquito, Puerto Rico
Whatever you do, do not call it eggnog. Although Puerto Rico’s beloved holiday tipple does have some similarities to eggnog, this rich and creamy punch often contains no eggs at all. Each family has their own (usually closely guarded) recipe, but the basics of coquito (which translates to “little coconut”) are generally evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, cream of coconut, and unsweetened coconut milk. Then it’s time to tinker with the spices (cinnamon, star anise, maybe a little nutmeg or clove) and, finally, the rum. Puerto Rico produces some of the world’s best, but non-alcoholic versions still get into the spirit by using a dash of rum extract, or omitting it altogether.