Commentary

Session end nears; so much for an official state sandwich

session

Gov. Eric Holcomb eyes a tenderloin at the Pulaski County Pork Tenderloin Challenge in September 2022. (Photo by Jonah Hinebaugh/Pharos-Tribune)

As the end of the legislative session quickly approaches, we witness the final weeks of opportunity for bills to be passed and signed into law. Some failed to make the full journey, dying in committee if they were lucky enough to be assigned and heard.  Others have been signed, sealed, and delivered as law or are on their way.

One bill that initially debuted with eager anticipation will not cross the governor’s desk to become law this spring. The legislation that would have formally and officially recognized the pork tenderloin sandwich as an official state food (SB 322) failed to make the cut.  

The fan favorite holds a special place on menus and dinner plates across Indiana, a simple yet stunning fried pork cutlet, flattened, fried, and often dramatically oversized relative to the bun it rests grandly upon. Indeed, its presence seemed so ubiquitous to the state culinary preferences that editors for Indianapolis Monthly proclaimed it “might as well be Indiana’s official state sandwich” in an article highlighting a dozen or so restaurants specializing in the midwestern dish.

Forty states across the country recognize official dishes in addition to a slew of other “official” state items. States have official songs (some of them, many songs like Tennessee which seems to recognize any tune remotely related to the volunteer state with 10); mottos; birds; flowers, etc.  At the same time Indiana legislators decided not to dish out the coveted “official” designation status for the pork tenderloin, a state representative in New Mexico authored a bill to recognize chiles in what would be the nation’s first “official state aroma.”  

What is a tenderloin? A simple yet stunning fried pork cutlet, flattened, fried, and often dramatically oversized relative to the bun it rests grandly upon. Nothing fancy but straightforward, affordable, versatile, good on its own or coupled with savory sides.

Indiana does award this distinction to some items, most recently the official state insect (Say’s Firefly, Senate Bill 236 in 2018).  When signing the legislation into law, Gov. Eric Holcomb joked, “I know this bill bugged some of my legislative friends, but the truth it is a big deal to young students around the state who have reached out to us in support.” He noted the value of civic engagement and the impact this experience had on the elementary school children who lobbied and testified in favor of the bill.

The pork tenderloin represents Indiana in the way flattened meat could. It derives from Huntington’s Nick’s Kitchen but has since been replicated across the state. Nothing fancy but straightforward, affordable, versatile, good on its own or coupled with savory sides. Some claim it is “Indiana’s most famous contribution to American cuisine” while another adds, “It’s democratic…[and] darn good”   

Having an “official” status denotes the cultural importance of the item to the state, whether it represents a nod to historical roots, reflects an appreciation of its impact, or even embodies an aesthetic of the state’s image, perceived or idealized. The designation depicts the values and vision a state has for itself.  Whether it is something you say, sing, eat, or even smell, the culmination of symbols tells a story about the state, in its past, present, and future.  

While the pork tenderloin sandwich may occupy more space in hungry Hoosiers’ stomachs than in the hearts and minds of their legislators, the timing didn’t help. It was hardly the most pressing issue facing lawmakers this year and symbolism should be secondary to major issues involving the budget, economic growth, government regulation, and other legislative matters. Even the governor’s office, which championed the bill, did so after highlighting the 2023 Next Level Agenda first. 

The legislation to make an item “official,” as The Smithsonian noted, is often short, taking little time to craft, debate, and pass relative to the more important matters. In a busy budgeting session, with conflicts over social issues, income tax, and dozens of other serious policies warranting extensive deliberation and debate, lawmakers’ plates were full. 

Providing the formal acknowledgment of the pork tenderloin as the official state sandwich may have been too much for legislators to digest, as the bill will join others that failed this year. For a food that is as rich in symbolism as it is tradition, perhaps lawmakers will have more of an appetite next year for the delicious dish.

Seconds, afterall, can apply to both meals and legislation.

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Laura Merrifield Wilson
Laura Merrifield Wilson

Laura Merrifield Wilson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Indianapolis. She specializes in the study of political behavior, state and local government, and campaigns and elections. She earned her PhD, MA, and MPA from the University of Alabama and her MA and AB Honors from Ohio University. She is a regular political commentator and analyst.

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