It’s Officially Time to Revamp Massachusetts’ State Symbols

What do Boston cream pie, chickadees, Cod, and Paxton soil all have in common? They're all symbols of the Commonwealth. Who knew? No one, claims our columnist Steve Calechman, and that’s why we need better ones.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

I might rag on my state for the usual reasons, like the lousy winters, the traffic, and the drivers who create it. But deep down, I know that Massachusetts rules. We have the best ice cream. We know how to make a sub. And we have more Wahlbergs per square foot than anywhere else.

But are any of these official state symbols? Noooooooo. We’ve got plenty of them, though. Cod, Boston cream pie, chickadee, American elm, mayflower, Paxton soil. (Yeah, never heard of that one either.)

As you can see, there’s not one waffle cone or Donnie in the bunch. That’s a problem. I also wonder if having symbols even matters. People can get through their day-to-day just fine without knowing what our folk song or gemstone is. On the qualitative level, maybe there’s an upside. Symbols are like handclaps or tambourines—not essential to the song but providing a needed texture and personality—and when we’re traveling out of state, we can think, “Baked navy beans. Yeah,” and feel less alone as a tear rolls down our cheek. “It’s all about community. We feel a part of something,” says Susan Westcott Alessandri, associate professor of advertising at Suffolk University. “You think of those and think of home.”

The problem is, we actually don’t—not with what’s on the books. The only thing that comes to mind when seeing a wild turkey (our official game bird) is, “Get the hell off my driveway!” If we’re gonna have symbols, we gotta make them count, because they’re not ceremonial, key-to-the-city stuff. They’re laws, which means they come with penalties for messing with them, or at least, they could have penalties. One actually does: the mayflower. Injure or dig one up without permission—it’s $50. Do it in a disguise or at night—double it. Consider yourself warned.

Our list of symbols, as it currently stands, needs to improve. A corn muffin? I get that it’s pilgrim-y, but I can already say that it’s dry. Our official berry? It’s the cran, which is not surprising. We grow a quarter of the country’s supply. (Although not the most. Mazel tov, Wisconsin.) My issue is that it’s also the official drink and one of the three official colors—blue and green are the others, for when your party talk needs a boost.

That’s way too much cranberry. I’ll be blunt. It’s one of the lesser fruits. It has never been craved. Never will be. It’s not better fresh out of the bog, and it just can’t stand on its own. It’s like the grapefruit, only improved after dousing it with sugar or vodka.

But I’m not here to bury the cranberry. It’s tart and an acquired taste; in that respect, pure Massachusetts. It rightfully deserves a title, which should be amended—a perfectly legal move—to declare that it’s the official remedy for an enlarged prostate. It would show a benefit to humankind, a recognition of science, and a nod to our state’s medical reputation.

There are other, shall we say, questionable choices. Boston cream might be the official doughnut, but really, our most wondrous circular creation is and can only be the rotary. The official dog is the Boston terrier. Sure, I guess we gotta, since it’s in the name, but in all my life, I’ve never met anyone who owned one. I say the solution is a name change. Call it a Boston doodle, which could then be referred to as a BoDo because if there’s anything we Bay Staters (official term) love, it’s a cool nickname. Or go with Fenway Scrapper or the Tom Brady (he’s open for licensing deals and now has time on his hands). New branding means new excitement.

Still, these are merely tweaks. What’s glaring are the categories that are missing, the ones that make us puff up and scream out, “Damn right I’m from Massachusetts!” So here are some suggested additions to the state symbol canon:

Space saver: Lawn chair.
Condiment: Tartar sauce.
Greeting: “What’s it to you?”
Relative: Your mother.
Place for your head: Up your ass.
Apology: “You’re being way too sensitive.”
Words of comfort: “Stop being a baby.”
Kitchen appliance: Deep fryer.
Car part: Horn.
Finger: You know which one.
Praise: “You want a medal?”
Name for an aunt: Julie.
Name for an uncle: Bobby or Jimmy. (We could have two.)
Bread for French toast: Challah. Not specifically a Boston thing, but still the best bread for French toast, and we should be the leaders on this one if only to make New York feel bad.

The above items need to be added, but we’re still not fully there. The real issue is honing in on our identity because right now, we don’t have one, and we’re too pissah not to. One place to look for motivation is Pittsburgh. Think of that city, and the only word that comes up is “steel.” The sky is gray; the people are hard, tough, and no-nonsense. They go to work even if they’re missing a foot, and their kids play football games in 40-below weather on asphalt in the dark. I don’t know if any of that is true. There might be residents there who cry and equivocate, but they’re probably hidden in the suburbs.

In Pittsburgh, all of the sports teams are clad in black and gold. That’s called a well-coordinated campaign, and I’ll risk the crap from my Cleveland in-laws, but I’ve always liked the Steelers because they looked so cool.

If we’re looking at statewide reach, and we should be, we also ought to take a page from Wisconsin. You know how confident those people are? They dominate in cranberries, but they make no boasts about it. For them, it’s all about cheese, another thing their state leads in the production of. The license plates announce that you’re in America’s Dairyland. Green Bay Packers fans call themselves Cheeseheads, and everyone from Rhinelander to Madison to Kenosha does as well.

Dumb? Maybe. Easy to mock? Sure. But after a day there, the authenticity sweeps you away, and you’re trying on Styrofoam wedge hats. It’s an all-state buy-in.

Would that even be possible…

“Absolutely not,” Westcott Alessandri says, not even letting me finish the question. Mass-achusetts residents are too…pick the word: skeptical, cynical, sarcastic, maybe a touch snobbish. Our independence might be one of our best traits, but unfortunately, it kills any attempt to have everyone wear the same T-shirt. Our teams can’t even unify. One’s got black and gold; another’s locked into green. The Patriots and the Sox come close with the blue and red, although John Henry might want to think about a switch to the Cranberry Sox just to be a good neighbor and capture the always sought-after synergy.

Until then, we’re kind of screwed.

Or maybe not. We’re a smart lot, book- and streetwise, and we should be able to figure out an identity that makes everyone want to love us. I believe the answer lies in our General Laws, Part 1, Title 1, Chapter 2, Section 42, which states that the chocolate chip cookie shall be the official cookie of the commonwealth—as if there could be any other. (Save it, peanut butter and snickerdoodle lobbies. The former is decent; the second is a sham. It sounds like the latest bougie dog, and it contains no Snickers, and I don’t care if it’s never been that kind of Snickers. It still says the word, and the letdown hurts every time.)

But the chocolate chip cookie is ours. Apparently, we invented the Toll House version in Whitman back in 1930, a fact that has been kept from me until now. I realize purists will say Toll House and chocolate chip cookies are different, even though both are made with flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and chocolate chips, then baked and eaten before sunrise.

The main point is that state law says “chocolate chip cookie,” so why this isn’t our top bullet point is a head-scratcher. It should be part of all official letterhead. The O in Boston should come with a little bite mark. The scent should be pumped hourly into the Callahan.

People travel to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for chocolate. We could be the same kind of destination vacation. Sam Adams could offer a holiday cocoa lager. Dunkin’ could be an official baker and pair its cookies with a medium, no cream, no sugar. Call it the Boston Double Play. Or maybe that’s the Tom Brady. They could be sold at Fenway, Logan, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Brattle, Mass General, Northeastern; anywhere people have mouths.

It’s a pure win. We become Cookie Town. Aerosmith will sing the jingle, and we still get to bitch and moan (our real official recreational sport—forget volleyball) about whether it can be considered an official cookie if you make it with semisweet chips, chunks, or, God forbid, walnuts.

Anyone got a problem with that?

Ooh, that’s a much better official state greeting.

First published in the print edition of the June 2023 issue with the headline “Navy Beans? No Way!”