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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2019 812 Magazine

Are we Upper South or Lower Midwest?


812 looked at where we live, what we eat and how we talk to solve our regional identity crisis.


O ur hills roll up from Kentucky. We like our pork tenderloins cut thick and fried deep. Sometimes, we drop our "g's" when we talk and say "fireflies" instead of "lightning bugs." Let's face it -- there's more than a little South in Southern Indiana.

Yet, here we are, smack in the Midwest.

So why does it matter? Well, where you come from says a lot about who you are. Think about it. What's one of the first questions you ask when you meet someone? "Where are you from?" We define ourselves by where we live. We make assumptions about other people once we know where they're from.

Midwesterners are friendly, practical and down-to-earth. Southerners are gracious, sassy and a tad eccentric. Midwesterners focus on the facts. Southerners tell stories.

Indiana University Professor James Madison, author of The Indiana Way: A State History, says Hoosiers became less distinctive over time but never completely disappeared into the American melting pot. We believe the same is true of the folks here in the lower third of the state. We're Hoosiers to be sure, but Hoosiers with a streak of Southern sass.

You-all come along and let us convince you.

Our hills and valleys shaped our destiny

When you're driving south from Indianapolis on State Road 37, the land is flat and the trees are few. Then you hit Martinsville, and everything changes. Rolling hills covered in hardwood forests stretch all the way to the Ohio River, giving the region the scenic beauty that shows up on calendars and postcards.

These hills are here because the last glacier to come through Indiana, about 20,000 years ago, stopped at Martinsville. A sheet of ice more than 1,000 feet thick scraped across the northern part of the state, flattening the land in its path. But the glacier didn't touch Southern Indiana, leaving us with the same forests, hills, caves, swamps, springs and waterfalls found in Kentucky.

That last glacier not only shaped the geography of our state, but also our cultural history, says Walter Hasenmueller with the Indiana Geological Survey. "Rugged country changes land use," he says. Somewhere between the northern and southern parts of the state, "the topography changes and the human use of the land changes."

The glacier that flattened the land in the north left behind sand, gravel and clay, creating a dense soil that proved to be great for growing corn and soybeans. The hills in the south, however, weren't as suitable for large-scale farming. Cities like Fort Wayne, South Bend and Gary flourished in the north where the terrain was more welcoming and transportation was easier and faster. Here in the south, towns stayed small, with the exception of Evansville on the banks of the Ohio.

That rugged topography that wasn't conducive to big farms or big cities is why we now have so much public land in the lower third of the state. Southern Indiana is home to 13 of our 14 state forests, plus the 202,000-acre Hoosier National Forest. In the northern two-thirds of the state, only three percent of the land is public. But in Indiana's south-central counties, that figure climbs to nearly 20 percent.

Jim Eagleman, a naturalist at Brown County State Park, has a photograph in his office taken from a satellite 440 miles above Indiana. "Do you see that dark green blob in the center?" he asks. "That's us."

That swath of green sweeping up from Kentucky brings us migrating birds and animals that wouldn't be here otherwise. Mike Homoya, a botanist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, says he's always thought of Southern Indiana as "the northern edge of the South" when it comes to plants and animals. You'll find mistletoe and yellowwood trees here. Cottonmouth snakes and Mississippi myotis bats. Carolina chickadees and chuck-will's-widows.

And all that public land also means we have more places for hiking, biking, camping and - a classic Southern pastime - hunting.

Even the rocks and minerals beneath the soil connect us with the South, says Walter Gray with the Indiana Geological Survey. We have coal and limestone - with its serpentine underground caves. "In terms of geology, Southern Indiana is not much different than Northern Kentucky," he says, "until you hit Martinsville, the glacial boundary."

You have to wonder: If it weren't for the half-mile-wide Ohio River, Southern Indiana today might well be part of Kentucky.

We fix Midwestern food with Southern style

If you go due south into Louisville you'll find derby pie and barbeque. If you head southeast, you'll find Cincinnati chili. Here in Southern Indiana, we grow sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes, persimmons and a wealth of other produce. We're perfectly positioned to take advantage of a bounty of regional foods.

Christine Barbour, author of "Home Grown Indiana: A Food Lover's Guide to Good Eating in the Hoosier State," describes Southern Indiana food as "Midwestern cuisine with Southern preparation." What does she mean? In Southern Indiana, we rely on fresh foods and ingredients during growing season.

We have an abundance of small farms and farmers markets that supply families and local restaurants with produce. The stretch of highway from Terre Haute to Vincennes on U.S. Route 41 is known as "melon road" because of the melon farms and stands. Jackson County is known for its cantaloupe, and in Vincennes, they celebrate New Year's Eve with an 18-foot, 500-pound man-made watermelon that drops real melons, ringing in the new year with a colorful splat.

We also have local farms that provide us with beef, pork, chicken, duck and even bison.

And how do we fix all these fresh, homegrown foods and farm-raised animals? Well, we tend to fry a lot of them, just as they do in the South. You'll find everything from hot fried biscuits in Nashville to fried brain sandwiches in Evansville.

Yes, brain sandwiches. Found only in the Southern part of the state, the "delicacy" was passed down by German immigrants who settled in the Ohio River Valley. Fried baloney sandwiches are another favorite. The classic way to eat one is on Wonder Bread with mayonnaise and a slice of processed American cheese. It's called the "hillbilly hamburger."

But, brains and baloney aside, Barbour says the pork tenderloin is probably the quintessential Southern Indiana sandwich.

Joanne Raetz Stuttgen is the co-author of the "Cafe Indiana Cookbook" and has eaten in more than 500 small-town restaurants across the state. She says we're still all about comfort food down here. People fry chicken, bake pies and enjoy each other's company around the dinner table. We may use more shortcuts nowadays - like mixes and frozen pie crusts - but we still appreciate a home-cooked meal.

Some of the more Southern-inspired dishes she's seen are dried beans, corn bread, corn mush, cobblers, meatloaf and tomato gravy. "Noodles are found in the Northern part of the state," she says, "while you are more likely to find dumplings in the Southern part."

So, when it comes to food, we're solidly in the Midwest -- but with a dash of Dixie. "I definitely see, feel and taste a Southern tradition here," Stuttgen says.

We speak with that "Hoosier twang"

We talk a little differently down here. We hang on to some words a little longer but cut others off. We make "and" a two-syllable word (an-duh) but say we're "goin' fishin'" or "huntin'." We say we want a "coke" when we mean a Sprite. We need to "git" where we're goin'. The thing we write with and the code we punch into our ATM are both "pins."

Here in Southern Indiana, we speak the South Midland dialect, along with the folks in Kentucky, Tennessee and Northern Alabama. When linguists asked Americans how they pronounced the words "pen" and "pin," they found that Southern Indiana was the northernmost point where they pronounced the two words the same. The South Midland dialect literally loops up from Kentucky into Southern Indiana and back. That's what linguists call the Hoosier apex.

Indiana University English professor Scott Herring described that Hoosier twang in the Southern Communication Journal: "It is a typical sweltering summer afternoon in Bloomington . . . I find myself, once again, stuck in the Dairy Queen drive-thru. . . . The attendant . . . kindly cautions that the bacon cheeseburger is "really greasy," only her sibilant [s] sounds a lot more like a [z]. Her grea[z]y gives me a pause, since the Indiana-based delivery seems more like Alabama-talk to my well-trained ears. I drive off, reminded that I reside in the dead-center of the Hoosier apex."

A dialect is more than an accent. It's a combination of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. A dialect develops when people who are set off from others by geographical or social boundaries use the same language in different ways. When you walk into a room, people can tell where you're from just by the way you're speaking. And people take pride in where they're from.

For a while, experts predicted that American dialects would disappear with time. They thought mass media would reduce regional speech patterns, and we'd all begin to sound like television newscasters. But five years ago, the "Atlas of North American English," the first text to plot all the major U.S. speech patterns, found the reverse: Regional dialects are actually becoming more distinct. The author says people want to sound like their friends - it's part of their identity. Dialects are a way of letting everyone know what region you're from, which plays a big part in who you are.

IU linguistics professor Brian Jose says people in Southern Indiana talk as they do because the region is more rural. "I think people tend to sound more Southern in rural areas," he says.

His colleague Kenneth de Jong suggests the reason people in Southern Indiana speak like people in the Upper South has a lot to do with history. "During the Civil War, abolitionists wanted to get to the first piece of land they could find that wasn't in the South, and guess where that is? Southern Indiana," he says. "That's where I think the Hoosier apex came from. So here you get people who think like Northerners but talk like Southerners."

So who are we, really?

What it all comes down to is that Southern Indiana is a lively fusion of Midwest and South. We're proud to be Hoosiers, but the natural world around us is more like Kentucky. Our food is made from Midwestern ingredients but prepared in a Southern style. We have a Midwestern attitude, but sound like our neighbors to the south.

Folks here mix Midwestern practicality with Southern grace, and we can identify with that.

Don't you-all agree?