The Southern Vortex: Weather, Food, and More Reasons to Question Our Identity

One thing you always notice this time of year, especially in national reports about major weather events, is the expression of some astonishment that it's cold "even in Tennessee."

From New York newsrooms, we look like handy Southerners. Geographically, though, are we so different from our northern brethren?

Look at your desk globe. Latitudes across the northern hemisphere range from zero, at the equator, to 90, at the North Pole. Knoxville's about 36 degrees latitude. Washington's about 38 and a half. Cincinnati's about 39. New York's barely over 40. We're all kind of clustered in the temperate middle. You could say that, more or less, for the contiguous 48 states, give or take South Texas and Minnesota. Maybe we don't get as much snow as New York does, but we get enough to know what it tastes like. We know what kind of snow is good for snowmen, what kind is good for sledding, and we should know how to drive in it better than we do.

Say Tennessee's in a hypothetical place called the South, and I won't argue. But in latitude, Knoxville and Philadelphia are closer than Knoxville and, say, Jacksonville. On a hunch, I looked this up. Knoxville's a little closer to the Great Lakes—Lake Erie, anyway—than to the Gulf Coast. Sure it gets chilly here.

Of course, sometimes the hyperbolic reporting is justified. There was that freakish Monday, Jan. 21, 1985. I was freshly unemployed in a rental duplex in West Knoxville without a car. I don't think I had a television at the time, and maybe I lacked electricity that day, anyway, because I don't remember any access even to the radio news. I did notice that the water in my kitchen sink, under the leaky faucet, froze, and I found that right peculiar. I could tell it was pretty damn cold, but couldn't tell how cold. I went outside once, but not for long, because it hurt to breathe. I learned the next day that it was 24 below zero.

That's not a wind-chill calculation, deployed to exaggerate misery. It was just 24 below, flat. It was another polar vortex. In fact, that very Monday is used as the top illustration in Wikipedia's definition of polar vortex. On his national show the following day, radio commentator Paul Harvey, a connoisseur of oddities, remarked that Knoxville was the coldest spot in the United States.

And thanks to that one day in 1985, Knoxville can claim that we've been colder than New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and even Boston have ever been. Seriously. Look it up.

I've noticed for years that temperatures are often not much different between here and New York. Sometimes New York's hotter. In fact, the all-time highs for both New York and Philadelphia are 106, one degree hotter than Knoxville's record of 105, set in 2012.

Is that weird? Maybe not. Weather is promiscuous about state lines. It doesn't even have any respect for the Mason-Dixon line. Weather is global in its perspective, and always aswirl.

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There are times, like last Monday night, when I was laying a fire because it was 2 degrees outside and the power was out, that can strain your lifelong faith that the North and the South are different places, with certain consistent properties.

Concerning the premise that the United States is cleanly bifurcated in any respect, especially when it comes to North and South, I am becoming an infidel.

But we do like to categorize ourselves that way. The idea was lampooned, and maybe re-enforced, in an old Bugs Bunny adventure, when our hero trudges through a desiccated wasteland of dead trees and telephone poles until he crosses the Mason-Dixon line and that suddenly finds himself in a lush, green paradise of flowers and magnolias and columned mansions and riverboats. Guarded, of course, by Yosemite Sam in a Confederate uniform.

The Civil War has much to answer for. Tennessee was rarely considered "the South" until its tardy defection in mid-1861. Before that, when newspapers up North or, for that matter, in Knoxville, referred to "the South," it was nearly always in reference to the Deep South, the cotton states, more or less the Gulf states plus South Carolina and Georgia. Before the Mexican War, Tennessee was part of "the West." After that, I guess, it was up for grabs.

Culture is as promiscuous as the weather. If it's a given that there's a North and a South, we have to admit they sometimes reverse characteristics completely. Consider the strange story of the Republican Party.

Regional foodways are rife with red herrings. Despite the distance from the Gulf, Cajun-style boiled crawfish has become commonplace in Knoxville, as a party hors d'oeuvre and a supermarket purchase, and that might seem significant. But it hasn't been around here nearly as long as, say, New England clam chowder. Or chop suey.

A few years ago, I risked sacrilege by suggesting that grits first appeared on Knoxville menus not as a result of the natural evolution of genuine local traditions, but as a way to appease Northern tourists. Thanks to the national media, they had come to expect it on their quaint Southern vacations.

There's a related phenomenon involving the deeper South. Smithsonian magazine recently published a feature by Hodding Carter about tamales and how they have taken hold of Greenville, Miss. The premise is that it's some kind of crazy freak that a small city in a state that doesn't even share a border with Mexico might somehow learn to specialize in a Mexican dish.

Carter cites historians who have concluded the Mexican dish arrived with migrant Mexican laborers, sometime after 1916. But these sources ignore the fact that tamales were fairly common in several Southern cities, including Knoxville, by the 1890s. Our city directory had an individual category heading for "Tamale Manufacturers" by 1909. Tasty food traditions, like cold fronts, often travel much faster than actual people do.


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