Meet Emily McMonagle, the Woman Cooking One Dish from All 50 States

updated Jul 26, 2019
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Credit: From left to right: Emily McMonagle; Joe Lingeman

If you’re a passionate home cook, you probably have meal plans, stacks of cookbooks, and dreams of expanding your palate (and cooking skills) beyond the standard fare. Understandably, however, it’s easy to get complacent, to simply prepare the same safe and familiar Instant Pot chicken dishes for your family every night.

For Emily McMonagle, the same dinner routine wasn’t enough to challenge herself in the kitchen or to keep her tastes satisfied, so she set up a challenge for herself: Cook a dish from every nation on earth. The project took her five years, and whet her appetite for more cooking outside her comfort zone. She’s now decided to cook one dish from every state in America. 

“Geography and food has been a passion of mine since childhood. My dad has a huge influence on why I have a curiosity and appreciation for different cultural cuisines. When other kids had their dads grilling steaks for Father’s Day, mine was making Vietnamese spring rolls,” McMonagle tells Kitchn. “I loved devoting a single day to just completely diving into a new recipe, culture and experience.”

To pick meals for each state, McMonagle does a little of her own research, first looking up the state’s official dish (if there is one), then reading up on its culture and history. She also turns to Reddit: Her initial post asking for suggestions for regional dishes attracted around 25,000 comments. On her Instagram page, she also asks her followers to vote on potential dishes, or make suggestions for other options. 

“I research Monday through Thursday and I usually have a set menu and grocery list to get me going by Friday,” she explains. “I usually cook on Sunday, and by Sunday night I’m already looking into the next meal.”

McMonagle has already begun the challenge, and she’s working through the states alphabetically. For Alabama she prepared barbecue chicken with creamed corn; for Alaska, smoked salmon and blueberry cobbler; and for Arizona, Navajo tacos and black bean salad. She originally hails from Colorado, so her home state’s recipe is coming up fast. She plans to prepare pork green chili. 

“Growing up my dad would make his “2nd place Green Chili” for his chili cook-off at work and we always loved stealing a bowl from the pot before he took it to the competition,” she remembers.

McMonagle now lives in Florida, and recognizes that there are a diverse array of cuisines that represent the state’s many regions. However, shrimp is the one food that reminds her of home. 

While she gushes that she’s looking forward to cooking meals from every state, she is especially looking forward to diving into the New England region, where seafood like clams are popular. As for those that will pose a challenge, any state that favors fried food feels intimidating. 

“I’m terrified of frying,” she admits. “I started a grease fire back in college, and to this day, I still flinch when bacon sizzles. A huge part of Southern meals are fried, so I’m going to have a bit of a learning curve to overcome my fear and a new technique.”

McMonagle is determined to put aside her fears, though. The project has ended up pushing her out of her comfort zone, especially when it comes to her baking skills. Now when she bakes, she feels proud of what she’s accomplished.

However, the most fulfilling aspect of the 50 states challenge is that she’s learning about the world around her, and sharing that knowledge through food with her family and friends. “I love exploring cultures and there’s no better way to do that than through food,” says McMonagle. “And any challenge where you get to share these meals with people you love, there’s nothing challenging about that.”

Thanks so much for telling us about your new project, Emily! And everyone, follow her new journey on Instagram.