How Twigs Get Bent: The Prof Gets Regional

The husband of a colleague of mine is the publisher of Mondoville’s weekly newspaper. (It came out three times a week when I moved here, but we all know about the newspaper biz these days.) They came here from the upper Midwest and Plains. The editor of the paper (a former student of mine) has lived here all his life, and apparently there are occasional disconnects.

Image by Lindsay Letters

For example, the publisher posted on the Book of Faces last night, expressing some befuddlement about the term “meat-and-three,” both in regards to the meal and as a descriptor of the sort of restaurant that serves it. In the ensuing discussion (which strongly implied that the term is chiefly Southern, I mentioned that my favorite restaurant in Kentucky offers a meat-and-three on its menu (although I prefer another item, the Hot Brown.) This in turn led him to ask if Kentucky is Southern. I replied at length, and figured, why let it go to waste?

While the term “meat-and-three” is a regionalism (particularly when used as a descriptor for a restaurant), the concept itself isn’t particularly different from a “blue plate special.” As for the question about whether KY is southern, it varies, and is still in flux. I grew up in KY’s northernmost region — my house was 18 miles from downtown Cincinnati. In the cemetery behind my house, a Confederate soldier is buried; my high school mascot was (and remains) the Rebel. (Kentucky declared itself neutral during the Civil War, and supplied men and materiel to both sides, though it never actually left the Union.) A restaurant four miles from my home served a meat-and-three, and called it that.

However, by the time I moved there in the late 70s, that area (especially Boone, Kenton, and Campbell counties — I grew up in Boone) had chiefly become a set of suburbs/bedroom communities for Cincinnati. In fact, the Cincinnati airport is in Boone County. If anything, it’s even more culturally Cincinnati now. The culture there is increasingly Midwestern, although most longtime residents insist on identifying as Kentuckian. Louisville (80 miles to the West, along the Ohio River), I would argue, is essentially a Midwestern city as well (That region is often called “Kentuckiana,” as it is across the river from IN as Northern KY is across the river from Cinti). There tends to be rivalry between Louisville and the rest of the state, and “Southernness” (as well as the more general urban/rural divide) is a factor in that.

On the other hand, 80 miles south of Cinti, Lexington (where I did half my undergrad and 5 years of grad school) is very much Southern in character and culture. It’s chiefly New South, but the character is dramatically different. This is also true of the rest of the Bluegrass and Bourbon regions. East of Lexington is Appalachia, and a good portion of the general population and culture are Appalachian diaspora as well. Once you get out of the Louisville area, the regions around Bowling Green (now essentially exurban Nashville) tend to be New South as well, though of the small town semirural variety. Waffle House, not IHOP.

Ultimately, I’d argue Kentucky is a border state between the South and Midwest, with the South dominating most of the state. It’s a diverse place, and I think that diversity is pretty cool. Likewise, quirks of dialect like “Meat-and-three” vs. “blue plate special” are bits of culture that one might dismiss as odd or inappropriate, or that one might embrace as sites of regional and cultural character that keep every place from becoming every other place. That’s probably more than you wanted to know about any of this, but that’s also part of Southern heritage — we’re proud of who we are, and interested in discussing how we got here.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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