Throughout the country there are cities that are synonymous with specific events or iconography that is interwoven into their very essence. For instance, when I say Orlando, chances are the first thing that pops into your head is Disney. If I say Detroit, it's likely that the first thing that pops in your head is the auto industry.
But what about food identity? In some cities, food is the defining identity. New Orleans has Cajun, Miami has Cuban, and Austin has barbecue. These food cultures exist, and likely for good reason, but the cities themselves do not exist exclusively in food vacuums. The fact that Chicago is known for an iconic hot dog is only a superficial glance at the true culinary identity of the city. These cultures are part perception, part reality, part branding and part of the interwoven consciousness that surrounds a specific place.
But is it their identity? Yes and no.
Let's go back to the first exercise. When I say Nashville, what pops into your mind? If I had to bet my next paycheck on it, I'd say that country music would be what you thought of. That's understandable, I mean the city is loud and proud of its nickname "Music City USA," which is a modern re-brand of its original version of the nickname "Country Music USA."
What about Nashville's culinary identity? That's probably a less obvious commodity to identify. Unless you've spent some time in Nashville, chances are, you're not exactly sure what to expect from the food scene.
Nashville, like other urban locales in the Bible belt and sun belt, is considered to be a city on the rise. Population increases for the city have been on the rise for a generation. While the music industry is certainly a major artery in the city's business landscape, growing healthcare and financial industries are also commercial revenue streams embedded in the city.
It's interesting to have a conversation with a local Nashvillian about their city. The city itself seemingly takes great pride in its country music roots. Downtown Nashville along Broadway and 2nd Avenue in the tourist district has piped-in country music that plays out of non-descript grey boxes placed strategically at intersections and acts as the city's soundtrack during the day, and live music pours out from famous "honky tonks" like Tootsies, The Stage and Robert's Western World that fills the air and creates a non-identifiable, non-specific but definitely "country" sound. That said, all of the people within the city don't exactly share the same warm embrace for the music. Perhaps a life of conversations like "Where are you from?" "Nashville." "Oh! You must love country music." have taken its toll on the people, but now for going on 70 years, Nashville has been synonymous with country music. You'll just be hard-pressed to find a local who will say "country music" when listing their five favorite things about Nashville.
Similarly, the culinary identity of Nashville parallels the overall identity of the city and potentially speaks to the post-reconstruction "new south" that we've witnessed over the past 30 years. Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, and Birmingham, Alabama are all now firmly placed at the forefront of the southern revival movement. These cities have histories that are steeped in culture, heritage passed down from generation to generation, and as industrialism and the country's population has migrated south, their history meets their future.
Similar to the country music industry in Nashville as a general identity, the culniary counterparts most easily identifiable with the city are meat and threes and hot chicken. And not unlike the country music identity of Nashville, meat and threes and hot chicken don't broadly or specifically define the city's culinary identity, but rather are mainstays woven into the overall fabric.