Kentucky has always been at a crossroads. Buffalo came looking for food and water. Native Americans came looking for buffalo. Pioneers and settlers came looking for land and opportunity.
Originally the Western frontier, Kentucky has been more or less at the center of the country geographically since the 1830s. Culturally, though, it remains a place unto itself. Many places, actually.
Early settlers came to the Bluegrass for fertile land and pure water to produce hemp, tobacco, strong-boned horses and good whiskey. Eastern Kentucky developed a rich, complex Appalachian culture as newer immigrants joined Anglo-Saxon settlers when railroads opened the mountains for timber and coal harvesting.
Communities along the Ohio River, long nourished by commerce, have created personalities all their own, as have those amid the farms of Southern Kentucky. Western Kentucky rolls out like a rumpled green carpet to the Jackson Purchase, encompassing many unique local cultures.
Ask someone in China what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” I went to church once with friends in a small Australian town and was introduced to the minister afterward. He immediately said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”
The recent popularity of bourbon has given Kentucky another international claim to fame. Jimmy Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey, told me that when he travels to Asia, Europe and Australia he is treated like a rock star. As he should be.
Kentuckians know how to eat well. Nothing is better than Western Kentucky barbecue in the summer or spicy burgoo in the winter. Any morning that begins with country ham and biscuits is a good morning.
Louisville has the calorie-packed Hot Brown sandwich, otherwise known as “heart attack on a plate.” Want something lighter? Try benedictine, a cucumber spread long popular with Louisville ladies who lunch.
Immigration continues to enrich Kentucky’s culture and palate: Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and African. The newest menu item at the 134-year-old Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County is barbecue nachos.
Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, as was his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. America’s greatest sports car, the Corvette, is made in Bowling Green. The stoplight was invented Garrett Morris, a black man from Paris.
Country music owes much of its sound to old-time Kentucky fiddlers and the hard-charging mandolin of Kentuckian Bill Monroe. And don’t forget Loretta Lynn, Jean Ritchie, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.
Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has started calling Kentucky the “literary capital of mid-America.” Sure, it’s a big boast. But consider the evidence: Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Wendell Berry, Harriette Arnow, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Grafton, Jesse Stuart, Silas House, William Wells Brown, Hunter S. Thompson, C.E. Morgan and too many more to mention. Outsiders may still joke that Kentuckians don’t wear shoes, but we sure can write.
That’s the good news. Now for some bad news: Kentucky lags most other states in many measures of health, education, social welfare and economic innovation.
Kentuckians tend to cling to what worked in the past rather than leveraging their unique assets, heritage, culture, location and know-how for a brighter future. We carelessly spoil beautiful landscape with strip mines and strip malls. We focus on fears instead of possibilities.
Remember what I said about Kentucky being at a crossroads? It has never been more true than today.