This article appears in the May 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com .
As a Hoosier who has happily worked in Louisville for 36 years, I generally deal with the cultural geography that comes with all that by simply explaining: “I live in the Midwest and work in the South.” It’s a fun explanation that also sinks right to the bottom of the stereotypes we all still too easily harbor when any particular state or region comes up for discussion: Hoosiers are honest, conservative, mostly agrarian folk who dine on cow’s milk, apple pie and hayseeds; Kentuckians — still wary of the spoken and written word, and shoes — mostly believe Yale is a door lock and dine on moonshine, ham hocks and bluegrass.
Running through the middle of all that — at least in the Louisville area — is the mile-wide Ohio River, which, until the Big Four Bridge walkway is completed, allowing actual personal contact between the populaces of the two states, still serves as a mighty buffer for which passports might as well be required.
Thus we all live with the most ugly, awkward, lame and inane geographical term ever given a bi-state area: Kentuckiana.
Yes, Louisville is in Kentucky, which few would want to confuse with the Midwest.
And yet about 200 years after its creation the nagging question remains: Is Louisville more Southern or Midwestern in character — if not culture — and how did it get that way? Adding even more confusion is that seasonally Southern, first-Saturday-in-May, Kentucky Derby thing, which in truth adds more of a world-class and glamorous Hollywood flavor, if not international flair, to the city.
The North and South are different places, and Hoosiers and Kentuckians don’t like to consider themselves very much alike, especially during basketball season — the largest divide of all. But outside of good state government — which Indiana wins by at least 30 lengths — what is the real difference, especially along the Ohio River? Are the people and attitudes in New Albany or Jeffersonville that much different than they are in Louisville?
Actually, not even the rest of the commonwealth seems to think of Louisville as being Southern — or, for that matter, should even be located in their state. Name the first — or last — Louisvillian elected governor of Kentucky. (No, you can’t count merger-attached Middletown.) In many minds, the city only exists to continually shovel a lot more tax money in Frankfort’s direction than it will ever get back.
My belief is that Louisville may have begun Southern — mostly settled by surveyors, adventurers and business types from Virginia — and then drifted north by northeast toward Midwestern status with the economic and Civil War tides.
To seek more definitive answers to the question, I’ve added the voices and opinions of a few native Louisvillians and demographic professionals — not to forget a few Cracker Barrel restaurant employees — to put the whole matter in final perspective.
So y’all follow along as we discuss our not-so-great North-South divide in fun, frivolous, historic, attitudinal, cultural, athletic, linguistic, culinary and even horticultural terms.
We’ll begin the analysis with some distant history: the original North-South dividing line, the Mason-Dixon Line. It was created in the 1760s by surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to serve as a demarcation line in a border dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. Back then the inland side of Virginia was still considered the “rugged west” and George Rogers Clark was still about 15 years away from founding Louisville. The Mason-Dixon Line would form Pennsylvania’s southern border, but would head west to the Ohio River and in time — and in mind — continue along the Ohio River to the Mississippi River.
It thus became symbolic of the slavery line dividing the North and the South, with Louisville to the south. Further confusing the issue was that, despite the fact that Kentucky was a slave state, it was horribly divided over the issue while declaring itself officially neutral. Still, the Mason-Dixon Line placed Kentucky in the South — a historical starting point.
It’s a point picked up by Metro Councilman and University of Louisville archivist Tom Owen, who quite literally knows the city backward and forward as he leads tours of its streets walking in both directions. Owen added another historical iron to the fire by reminding us that up until the Civil War, Louisville actually had an image as a western city — partly because much of the Great Midwest hadn’t yet been invented in the minds of the Easterners who made such decisions.
Owen went on to list a few more “stream of consciousness” points in the North-South debate, such as:
“Our city hall has a stone billboard over its main entrance depicting a steam locomotive headed toward a palm tree. The billboard celebrates our city’s ‘doing the Deep South hustle.’”
“The Kentucky Derby, with its natty gentlemen, brightly costumed women, and sweet, minty drinks is a welcome to Southern springtime.”
“We have a Confederate soldier monument despite the fact that Louisvillians contributed many more Union troops than Confederate.”
“A giant neon sign atop a waterside LG&E power plant once welcomed visitors coming across the Clark Bridge with the words: ‘Welcome to Louisville: The Gateway to the South.’”
Owen left no doubt where Louisville historically stood in his eyes: “If you lived where slavery existed, do you live in the South? My answer is YES!” And yet he went on to mention a Louisville and Kentucky icon that has helped to soften that blow: “The Kentucky Colonel is a genial, tamed old Confederate who innocuously connects both North and South and takes the sting out of the Civil War bitterness,” Owen said. (Here’s the kicker to that thought: Our beloved chicken-pushing, finger-lickin’ Kentucky Colonel — Harland Sanders — was born in Henryville, Ind.)
Louisville cannot be considered a Southern city horticulturally speaking. The traditional Southern magnolia, most camellias, the Southern live oak and the ever-popular loropetalum shrub — all of which grace Southern gardens — will struggle here. The magnolias will burn an ugly brown in our winters, many camellias will perish and the live oaks will host no Spanish moss. Indeed, any annual or perennial flower, shrub or tree that will do well across the lower Midwest will also do well in Louisville.
Even more confusing, the multi-tasking tulip poplar is the state tree of Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky, although at one point the Kentucky coffee tree was given that honor in Kentucky. At least there’s never been an Indiana coffee tree.
On the economic front we turned to Paul Coomes, professor of economics at the University of Louisville, the local go-to guy on business forecasting — who got his master’s at Indiana University and is a direct descendant of the original 1772 settlers at Fort Harrod, Ky.
“Louisville,” declared Coomes at the outset, “is at its core a Midwestern city,” linking Louisville with the other Midwestern-type industrial towns that grew up along the Ohio River — Cincinnati, Evansville and Owensboro among them. “You can go right down the river and see those towns, the old factories,” he said. “Maybe some people think Louisville is Southern. I don’t.”
Coomes pointed out that Louisville has long been more of a union town, something you don’t see in the South. He said every state south of Kentucky is a “right-to-work state” in which you cannot be required to join a union or pay dues, which is not the case here or in Indiana.
“You go about 40 miles south of Louisville and it starts to become Southern,” he said, “and Lexington feels Southern.”
As a closer to his argument, Coomes pointed out a comment professional golfer Mark O’Meara made about coming to Louisville for this year’s Senior PGA Championship. “O’Meara,” Coomes explained, “said he liked coming to the Midwest because the crowds are so enthusiastic.”
When it comes to characterizing Louisville by the food to be ingested here, one of my hopes in a previous journalistic life was to establish a “Grits Line” across Kentucky and Indiana — a defining north-south line of local eateries that served some sort of ground corn or hominy on their breakfast menus.
Barbecue had gotten way too complicated.
Alas, my grits line plan fell apart when I called Cracker Barrel Restaurants in Jeffersontown and on Crittenden Drive in Louisville, and another in Sellersburg — i.e. the Midwest. All three served grits. In fact, the woman who answered the phone at the Crittenden Drive restaurant seemed wounded anyone would even ask. “Of course we serve grits,” she said.
Moving 40 miles north, a woman at the Seymour, Ind., Cracker Barrel was mighty doggone proud that it served shrimp over a bed a cheesy grits. “It’s sautéed,” she said.
Moving north another 630 miles, a woman at the Cracker Barrel in Lakeville, Minn. — which is about a half-hour south of Minneapolis and has the only Cracker Barrel in the state — also said they served grits.
So much for the Grits Line. Louisville stays firmly in the South on that one, along with, apparently, Eau Claire, Wis.
When it comes to food, wine and Southern traditions, Louisville native Robin Garr — writer, chief critic and co-owner of LouisvilleHotBytes.com and WineLoversPage.com — has a strong taste for the subject: “Is Louisville Southern?” he rhetorically asked. “As a lifelong Louisvillian with family roots in this town that reach back to the 1800s, I think I’m qualified to comment: Bwahahaha!
“(By the mid 19th century,) Louisville was peopled largely by German and Irish immigrants who came down the Ohio from the Northeast. This industrial, red-brick river city proudly manufactured goods for the Union during the Civil War (and maybe sold some stuff to the other side too). It was only after the war that some people here decided it would be romantic to join the ‘Lost Cause’ after it was well and truly lost.
“But I can testify on the basis of a typical Louisvillian’s diet while I was growing up. We knew not of humble grits. Nor did collards, kale or other greens — other than gently wilted spinach — grace our table. Steaks and potatoes, veal chops and salmon, yes. Pork chops? Sure. Pork ribs, not so much. Fried chicken, only from the Colonel; and chitlins, never,” Garr said.
“It’s only recently that a few local restaurants, mostly new arrivals, have decided to bill themselves as ‘Southern,’” he added. “Maybe they see it as another exotic and foreign notion to attract our taste buds with something new. But I’m guessing that it’s informed by the same misguided sense of romance that led some of our ancestors to join the South after the South had lost.”
WAVE-TV anchor Dawne Gee, however, who also was born and raised in Louisville, remembers the town — at least her experience in it — as decidedly Southern. “My grandmomma (not grandmother) fried chicken in lard and oh, Lord, was it good!” Gee said. “My granddaddy actually made moonshine. We would put it in a spoon and it would stay lit forever, it seemed. He also made chow-chow — no, not a dog food but the best homemade relish in the world. My father is certainly a Southern gentleman, but he is one of few, unfortunately.”
Another geographical test, she thinks, is how you approach sweet tea. “As Southerners we love our sweet tea,” she said. “When I say sweet, just hang a glucose IV drip. That is how we like it.”
Language and accent are other sure giveaways to being in the real South. The spoken Southern syllables last longer. The contracted phrase “y’all” comes out with an affectionate flavor forever missing in “you guys.”
And yet we don’t hear “y’all” that much in general conversation in Louisville — and when you do it seems to stand out. Case in point: Several of us were dining at a Bardstown Road restaurant last week, and the waiter — who seemed about 45 percent Woody Harrelson with a totally unaffected Southern voice — said “y’all” a couple times while taking our orders.
When kidded about it, he said he was a lifelong Louisville resident, had grown up just a few blocks away in the Highlands, and many of his customers and Louisville friends kidded him about his “Southern drawl.”
It is so easy to delight in the company of Louisville natives who speak in a soft Southern drawl, a rich, sonorous sound that hangs in the air like some linguistic perfume long after the words have vanished. And yet, most Louisvillians do not talk Southern — or even play the role, except for on that fabled first Saturday in May.
Hunt Chouteau Helm, former Courier-Journal reporter and editor and now vice president for communications and public affairs at Bellarmine University, comes from an old Louisville family. He, too, has reservations on the Southernness of the city.
“It’s tricky writing about whether Louisville is a Southern city,” he said. “Louisville ‘Southerners’ will challenge you to a duel if you suggest it isn’t one, and nobody else even cares about the question. Nevertheless, as one who grew up here — steeped, some friends might say, in the mystique of Southern gentility — I reckon we’re not Southern.
“I won’t go back on my raisin’. We do have a few Southern traits: hospitality, courtly manners. We still say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ sometimes, and we take forever to get to the point. We also love the Kentucky Derby. I will always love it — the moonlight and magnolias, the juleps, the breathtaking hats, the linen and the seersucker. Brunch.
“Once a year we take our history out of the big hatbox in the attic. We put sugar and mint in bourbon that’s better without it, we sing those edited lyrics, and we cry right when the words say not to.
“We make ourselves look beautiful, no matter what it takes: ‘dog to fox in about an hour.’ Men and women alike. Then we offer up our appetites, like ham and biscuits on a re-silvered serving tray. It’s supposedly the one time of year when the whole world is watching us — and, to whatever extent that’s really true, Old South romance is the image that they see.
“It’s probably not the brand we want to compete with in the new economy. And it isn’t real. It’s a cultural re-enactment. The minute it’s over we put that Old South stuff back in the attic just as fast as our little legs will carry us.”
Virginia-born Louisville poet and author Marie Bradby agrees, mentioning the time she went to a U of L football game at Papa John’s Stadium dressed in a “beautiful go-to-luncheon dress (not too fussy) and I was surrounded by folks who looked like they had just moseyed over from the jogging track. Mama would have had on a suit, heels and a hat.”
“It’s just not who we are,” Helm said. “In fact, the way we change to pull off Derby — the sharp contrast with the rest of the year — is proof that we’re not Southern. We’re not Northern, either, but somehow that’s never the question. We’re Louisville. We’re Louisville, and there’s no place like home.”
For all that, here’s one more Kentucky tradition that’s good for 365 days a year. Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon whiskey, producing 95 percent of the world’s supply. Louisville has historically played a large role in that. Nobody can drink good bourbon here and have fond thoughts of Lakeville, Minn., at the same time. Louisvillians do drink Southern.
And when it comes to looking at Louisville from an entertaining perspective, few have a better understanding than Lynn Winter, Louisville native of Midwestern parents, owner of the always-eclectic Lynn’s Paradise Cafe and the voice and power behind the International Ugly Lamp Contest held at the Kentucky State Fair.
“When people ask me, my quick answer is we always have our head in the North and our heart in the South. But under deeper scrutiny of thought, what are we really?” Winter asked.
“After living in both Louisville and Los Angeles for the past 10 years . . . I’ve given a lot of thought to what Louisville is and isn’t. The South’s clichés — warm, hospitable, courteous, genteel — definitely define many of the things one would find here. Then there are the Midwestern cornerstone ideas (at least what my mom and dad informed me) of industriousness, commerce — and being colder.
“But the way I look at it,” she said, “is we have a foot in both, but we are something altogether our own thing. That’s why my restaurant and I are here and not somewhere else.
“I have friends and family from fundamentalist to extreme alternative lifestyles and they all make sense here somehow — from Hunter S. Thompson to Pat Day. As someone once said about the restaurant, it reminded her of a cross between Salvador Dali and Dolly Parton. Maybe that’s the mystery of it all.
“So, who are we and where do we belong? Right where we are.”
Photo courtesy of: John Nation