Let’s talk about the Ohio River, shall we?
The waterway that drains the eastern half of the Midwest and has divided North from South for more than two centuries, is more than a state boundary. It’s demarcation for Southern cuisine.
Let me explain. I grew up in Shelby County, Illinois, a full hundred miles north of the Ohio. It was an existence devoid of cathead biscuits, home-made cornbread, and stone-ground grits. Okra, country ham, and collards did not exist.
Slaw was a side dish, never a condiment. And such delicacies as made-from-scratch coconut cake, chess pie, and banana pudding were unheard of.
As the saying goes, I wasn’t born in North Carolina but I got here as soon as I could. That was 35 years ago. What a shock to learn all I had been missing!
Memories of early deprivation bring to mind these Illinois rules:
- Cornbread. Made from a box and served with ham and beans in winter months.
- Okra. Slimy green discs found in Campbell’s chicken gumbo soup.
- Country ham (aka shoe leather). Don’t trust unrefrigerated meat.
- Collards. What?
- Crowder peas. Ditto.
- Boiled peanuts. Ditto again.
- Grits. A breakfast novelty served in a puddle with butter. Don’t make a habit out of this or people will think you’re being cute.
- Biscuits. Found in foil cylinders in the dairy case, or in recent years, at fast-food restaurants before 10:30 a.m.
And then there’s tea. It’s not necessarily iced and usually instant. It is seldom pre-sweetened.
Over the past 35 years I have crossed the Ohio River many times to visit family. I’ve sampled restaurants on I-24 into Illinois and I-64 into Indiana to conclude that the line of demarcation is the Ohio River. Trust me on this. If you venture north of Louisville or Paducah, forget grits and fried okra and cornbread. Ask for slaw on your sandwich and you will raise eyebrows.
Yes, there is a country ham outlet up north of Ft. Campbell, KY on I-24. It’s a novelty enough to deserve a large sign reminding you to stock up. Believe these signs when you see them. The land beyond the Ohio is a different place entirely.