These Official State Symbols Could Use Revisiting
Do we really need a state waterlily?
In March, Texas Monthly‘s Christian Wallace excoriated the fact that the unloved “Texas, Our Texas” remained our state song in spite of hundreds of worthier alternatives. You had a lot of thoughts on that critique, both good and bad. But after some reflection, we’ve decided that it’s not fair to single out the state song. Unfortunately, it is far from alone among state symbols in need of revision. Some aspects of our culture are overexposed—cowboy culture, bluebonnets and pecans—and others are largely ignored. So after a long, diligent review of our state-sanctioned activities, food and drink, plants and animals, and minerals, here are some guideposts to a better Texas tomorrow.
It should come as no surprise that the cowboy hat is the official state hat, or that cowboy boots are the official state shoe, or, I guess, that rodeo is the official state sport. (If we are being honest with ourselves, that last would be football.)
But should the chuckwagon really be the official state vehicle? What about the Chevy Suburban? And when was the last time you had a hunk of pan de campo, the campfire variety of the staff of life honored as our official state bread? Or especially one baked in our state cooking implement, the cast-iron Dutch oven? Was it delivered to you in a chuckwagon?
This is a new day. We have more thoughts on the state bread later, but for now, let’s get real: Boots, hats, and rodeos are sufficient reminders of our cowboy heritage.
Flora and Fauna
Back in 1927, when the mockingbird was designated the state bird, the Lege was full of fulsome praise:
“[The mockingbird] is found in all parts of the State, in winter and in summer, in the city and in the country, on the prairie and in the woods and hills … is a singer of distinctive type, a fighter for the protection of his home, falling, if need be, in its defense, like any true Texan…”
You know another bird you can say that about? The great-tailed grackle. Their distribution extends from the Rio Grande to Dumas, Orange to El Paso. You’ll find them on the prairie and in the woods and hills, and in the HEB parking lot, the restaurant patio, the college campus, and guarding the power line too. As for their distinctive songs, with their shrieks, clicks, clucks, and screams, grackles make mockingbirds sound like field mice. Although I’ve yet to experience a grackle assault, I have no doubt that they can take care of themselves, and would fall, if need be, in defense of their home, like any good Texan.
The mockingbird is tired. It’s already the state bird of a mess of Deep South states. Let’s leave the mockingbirds behind and adopt something more Texan. If not the grackle, perhaps the mischievous roadrunner, or the majestic, graceful scissor-tailed flycatcher.
I concur with the selection of our saltwater fish (the red drum) and our freshwater fish (the Guadalupe bass). The Texas toad and the Texas horned lizard take respective honors for amphibian and reptile, rightfully, and if we have to have an official sea turtle, it might as well be the Kemp’s Ridley variety. The same goes for crustaceans: while not threatened, the Texas gulf shrimp is Texan and tasty. (But why not a state mollusk? I whole-heartedly nominate the oyster.)
The Monarch butterfly flits about on wings of gold as our state insect. Fine, but creepy-crawlies deserve respect too. Why no state arachnid (suggestion: the striped bark scorpion)? State arthropod (the doodle-bug)? State snake (the coral snake)?
We have a state plant—the prickly pear cactus, deserved—and two state shrubs. The Texas purple sage is native, but the other, the crape myrtle, is not. I don’t care if we keep either, but if one must go, let it be the introduced crape myrtle.
The American quarter horse and the blue Lacy top the steeds and canines. Not sure if we need a particular breed for either. Texas is well-known for its dogs and horses of all varieties. Likewise, we have a state waterlily: the Nymphaea Texas dawn. Dang. Let it go.
We have three state mammals: small (the nine-banded armadillo); large (the longhorn) and flying (the Mexican free-tailed bat). Fine with all those, but again, where do we draw the line? Why no medium-sized (nominee: the javelina), swimming (a dolphin of some kind), or a mammalian pest (the feral hog)? Where is the love for cool Texas mammals like the pronghorn? Or the wily coyote? If we can honor a state dinosaur (Paluxysaurus jonesi) and a state grass (sideoats grama, naturally), why not a few more of our mammalian compadres?
The pecan is the state tree. And while that could be deserved, we carried pecan love way too far (more on that in a bit), just as we did for our state flower, which you may have heard is the bluebonnet, also called the buffalo clover, wolf flower and el conejo (the rabbit). The bluebonnet was adopted as the state flower, at the request of the Society of Colonial Dames in Texas, by the 27th Legislature in 1901.
Again, we carry our love of this worthy little flower to ludicrous extremes. We honor them again with the freaking state tartan, a measure crammed through the Lege by the notorious Scottish-Texan lobby, and a “state flower song” called “Bluebonnets.” As Wallace pointed out, the lame rationale behind this 1933 honor was “This State has no State Flower Song.” Nor did we need one, just as we don’t need to bestow Ennis with honors as both the “state bluebonnet city” and home of the“state bluebonnet trail.” Not bluebonneted out yet? Then you will want to head down to Chappell Hill for a re-up at the official State Bluebonnet Festival.
Music / The Arts / Fun & Games
We’ve made a mess of this category. If we must have a state domino game, there is no other choice than 42, but why is Texas Hold ‘Em still awaiting its honor as state poker game?
I’m fine with Western swing as the official state music, though it is a bit of a relic now. Even so, it was born here, incorporates every cultural influence from blues to polka, and just sounds like Texas.
But that’s about it, on the positive side.
As Wallace so eloquently argued, if “Texas, Our Texas” were an even halfway decent state song we’d sing it so loud and so often the entire rest of the world would know the words. As it is—generic old-timey melody, a lyrical rhyme scheme that begins with “great” and “state” and fails to launch from there—not one in a thousand Texans knows even a verse.
“Scotland the Brave,” “Rocky Top,” or even “Country Roads” (the official state song of West Virginia) it ain’t. Texas deserves better. It’s gotta go. But replace it with what? Read Wallace’s article for more thoughts on the subject.
If we can’t come up with anything more original than the guitar for state instrument, we should not even bother coming up with one at all. And why in the hell is the generic “square dance” the official folk dance in the state where both the cotton-eyed-Joe and the Texas two-step hold sway?
We have a state epic poem: “ The Legend of Old Stone Ranch,” by John Worth Cloud, 400-pages of verse about the Albany-Fort Griffin area. But we don’t have a state rap. We have a whopping four state plays: The Lone Star, Texas, Beyond the Sundown, and Fandangle. And we have no state movies, nor a state made-for-TV miniseries. (Lonesome Dove, of course, which should also be the state novel.)
Food & Drink*/Agriculture
*no drinks have been honored yet
The Texas sweet onion claims honors as state vegetable. As our leading vegetable crop, onions do find their way into many of our finest dishes, from Port Arthur gumbo to South Texas cheese enchiladas to chili statewide. They can stay. Likewise, the Texas red grapefruit, the state fruit. Despite my Texas nativity, I came late to these juicy flavor bombs; up until about 14, I sprinkled sugar on the nasty pink Florida/California ones with my serrated grapefruit spoon. Once I tasted my first ruby red, I pushed the sugar bowl away forever.
Chili has been the official state dish since 1977, much to the chagrin of our own Paul Burka. Not long before his retirement, Burka expressed his belief that brisket is “far superior” to any bowl of red yet concocted. Perhaps a statewide referendum is in order?
The other food items are even more problematic. Back in 2003, at the request of a determined squad of Mission second graders, the state designated tortilla chips and salsa as the state snack. Sadly, that designation appears not to have stuck, as it is not listed on the official state symbol website. For the record, we heartily endorse that choice, with the possible caveat that it might be better listed as state appetizer.
Also in 2003, in an apparently unprecedented and unrepeated act, the Lege deemed both strudel and sopapillas as co-state pastries for a period of just two years. While both are tasty and worthy nods to German and Tejano culture, neither has attained the cultural ubiquity of kolaches. Why not name kolaches the state sweet pastry and klobasniky the state savory pastry? Forever, this time.
Pecans are over-enshrined. The tree is already rightfully honored—so adding it as both the nut and the pie is overkill. What’s next? Butter pecan ice cream too? Pecan-crusted redfish as state seafood main course? An official state pecan grove, pecan city, pecan fun-run and official state pecan festival? Why not make pecan pralines the state candy? Enshrine the correct pronunciation? (For the record, I love pecans, but overdoing it is overdoing it.)
On that note, do we really need a state cobbler (peach) and a state squash (pumpkins)? Again, we are getting too specific. Both seem slippery slopes to state crumbles and crisps or state legumes and tubers.
And we have two state peppers – native (the chiltepin, or chile pequin) and non-native (the jalapeño.) When was the last time you ate a chile pequin? It’s cool that they grow here naturally and all, but come on. As for jalapeños, they are so ubiquitous here they deserve honor. With cowboy culture overpraised, why not take pan de campo out and replace it with jalapeño cornbread, thus honoring not one, but two staples of Texas cuisine in one fell swoop? You can even cook it in your official Texas state cooking implement—a cast-iron Dutch oven (with the lid off)—if you choose.
As the lifeblood of Texas’s nineteenth century economy, cotton deservedly takes dual honors as state fiber and fabric, and while I appreciate bees, I am not sure they need designation as official state pollinators. It’s as slam-dunk a decision as honoring Nolan Ryan as official state pitcher.
And before I forget – why not honor a few drinks, too? Since they might have originated in Galveston or El Paso, and given their ubiquity, margaritas are a no-brainer as state cocktail. Beer is more problematic: do you give the nod to Shiner or multi-national Texas-marketed products like Lone Star or Pearl? Who takes top honors as state wine? As for soft drinks, do you honor the original Dublin Dr. Pepper or the mass-produced successor or go all East Texas and give the title to Big Red? And in spite of my railing against over-honoring the same things again and again, fresh-squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice is worthy of an exception.
The Mineral World
Let’s do away with the state stone (petrified palmwood), the state precious metal (silver), the state gemstone cut (yes, we really have one of those: the Lone Star), and keep the state gem (Texas blue topaz, found in creek beds around Mason), and hell, might as well keep the state seashell—the lightning whelk—as well.
And officially designate West Texas Intermediate Crude as the official State Lifeblood.