“So, where is Missouri?” my Uber driver asked as we drove through New York.
“Well, we’re bordered by Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas.” I replied.
“That sounds like the South.”
“Yes, but we’re also bordered by Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa.”
“That sounds like the Midwest.”
“So, which one is it?”
The United States Census Bureau considers Missouri a Midwestern state, but if you’re from Missouri, you’ve probably had a conversation like the one above, possibly even with another Missourian. Everywhere I’ve lived and traveled, from New York to Long Beach to Spain, I’ve found myself in conversations about Missouri’s regional identity.
Sure, St. Louis is the birthplace of toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake, and Kansas City barbecue is famous, but fried green tomatoes remind me of my home in southeast Missouri.
Google it. The page-one results will tell you Missouri is both Midwestern and a Southern. As a border state where slavery was legal, Missouri saw over 1,000 bloody battles during the Civil War, and you’ll still find over a dozen Confederate markers in my home state—including a state park called Confederate Home. There’s even a part of central Missouri known as “Little Dixie,” a name that speaks to the area’s ties to the South. I grew up seeing Confederate flags decorating graves, displayed on porches, and painted on trucks. I also grew up playing in a national forest dedicated to one of the best-known Midwestern abolitionists, Mark Twain.
In the HBO series Sharp Objects, set in the Missouri Bootheel, the main character, Amy Adams’s Camille Preaker, refers to her hometown, the fictional Wind Gap, Missouri, as both Midwestern and Southern. At one point in the series, she describes the parking lot where she partied in high school as, “party central, like a Midwest Lord of the Flies.” Meanwhile, in episode five, Preaker details the history of “Calhoun Day”—a disturbing Wind Gap holiday celebrating the town’s ties to the Confederacy and the South. At one point, Camille’s childhood home is shown on the cover of Southern Home.
While I’d be lying if I said I’ve always enjoyed living in Missouri, I’ve grown to appreciate the unique experience of living in a portion of the Midwest that blurs into the South. Growing up in Poplar Bluff, a town widely considered part of Missouri’s Bootheel region but also the official “Gateway to the Ozarks,” my experience as a Missourian, and a Midwesterner, has been more Southern than most.
Sure, St. Louis is the birthplace of toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake, and Kansas City barbecue is famous, but fried green tomatoes remind me of my home in southeast Missouri. Served hot and greasy, they’re often the star snack at our local festivals. They’re on the menus at our local greasy spoons—and gas stations, too. Before my grandmother died, she taught me how to make them in the cast iron skillet that she gifted me posthumously: sliced thick, covered in cornmeal and flour, dusted with salt, pepper, and Cajun seasoning, and fried to a crisp in vegetable oil—a recipe likely passed down to her by her Southern mother.
Missouri certainly has the abundant cornfields expected of any heartland state, but cotton fields will always remind me of home. Hailing from a corner of Missouri where just an inch of snow can close schools for days, I grew up driving past cotton fields in bloom and pretending the fluffy bolls were snowflakes. My grandparents, Bootheel natives, captivated me with their childhood memories of picking cotton by hand—a painful but necessary part of many Bootheel childhoods in the 1930s and 1940s. Nearly 100 years later, cotton is still one of Missouri’s top commodities: Bootheel farmers produced a whopping 915,000 bales in 2019, putting the state’s output in the vicinity of Alabama’s, North Carolina’s, and Tennessee’s.
While I used to long for one straightfoward regional identity, I’ve realized there’s something special about living in a state that’s covered by both Midwest Living and Southern Living: I get to be a Midwesterner and a Southerner. Granted, I’ve spent more time in the Deep South than the Upper Midwest, I’ve never been to a hockey game, and I’ve never called soda “pop”—but if you’re from the Midwest, you know it’s more than those stereotypes, Rust Belt cities, and Great Lakes. It’s rolling Ozark hills and swampland dominated by bald cypress trees. It’s Mississippi River towns and Missouri wine country. It’s the Trail of Tears and the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing. It’s the birthplace of Josephine Baker and Jesse James. It’s bluegrass festivals and jazz clubs. It’s cotton fields and fried green tomatoes in the Bootheel.