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