South of the Middle [Louisville Magazine]

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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.