If I had to give a layman’s definition to the word “culture” when it comes to pinpointing it in a given city—whatever it is—I’d have to say something like this: The culture of a city is what that city is all about, it’s Big Deal Thing (you, with the dirty mind, get your brains out of the gutter…), a nebulous entity like a feeling … no, not a feeling … a sense, yes! A Sense. The sense of the city that tourists take home with them and citizens carry proudly in their shirt pockets. It’s what people mean when they talk about it. “You know, it’s really a___________ kind of place.” The blank, of course, being a hyper-distilled synonym for the given city’s culture. “Nasty,” “friendly,” “boring,” and the ubiquitous and nearly meaningless “nice.”
But that’s too simple. I’m still missing something. Maybe the culture of a city means that you can find what you’re looking for there. Not necessarily in terms of stuff to consume, strictly speaking, though that might be part of it. Chattanooga, for example, has a lot of cool stuff to consume. The experiences of Rock City (Seen it! A bunch of times! I love it!) and Ruby Falls, the aquarium, the riverfront. Cool things to literally consume too: lots of delicious craft coffee and brew, top-of-the-line food along Main Street and MLK, shows at The Signal and Track 29.
When I say a city’s culture means whether or not you can find what you’re looking for there—and I subtract “things to consume”—what I’m left with is a critical question: “Can I find myself there?” Or, in other words, “Does the essence of me square with the city’s essence?” The culture of a city, then, must be its essence or, if not exactly its essence, the byproduct of the city’s countless moving parts (e.g. individual citizens, businesses, churches) striving to define themselves in context with one another.
I think the more selflessly each of a city’s moving parts defines itself, the richer that city’s culture will be. So then a key component of a culturally rich city must be that it has places where those moving parts can come together and, at the very least, simply exist in one another’s presences. Nothing fosters selflessness like nearness (in all the ways you can define “nearness” including and especially “physical proximity”) just like nothing fosters all the -isms of bad culture (racism, sexism, classism, et al) like distance between the parts.
I’ve been a fan of The Camp House for a long time. Its location at MLK and Lindsay Street isn’t anything new anymore, though I think for die-hard Camp House fans from back in the Williams Street days, it might still (and maybe always will) feel that way. I find myself at The Camp House at least once a week, but often more. For my regular Friday book club for sure, but sometimes, in addition, I’m there for a work lunch or a writing critique group and sometimes I’m there to sit and write the latest edition of this very column. And sometimes, dear reader, I sit at The Camp House and sip my coffee and watch cat videos.
I can’t think of a spot in Chattanooga quite like The Camp House. At nearly any given time, you’re likely to find a pretty accurate representative cross-section of Chattanoogans. It’s uncanny, actually. Around one table, steaming cups of coffee before them, there’s Senator Bob Corker and his entourage discussing matters of great national import (or maybe they’re watching cat videos too, what do I know, I don’t gawk.) At another table, you might see a homeless guy in from the cold. At still another, kids from CCS studying for a bio exam. Not to mention all the local captains of industry who office at The Camp House, the social activists who plan marches, the ubiquitous clergy members, the UTC seniors trying desperately to figure out their lives, and the real gone loners halfway through “Infinite Jest.”
The Camp House has a brand-new lunch menu, incidentally, spearheaded by Dan Rubino, the new executive chef. If you’re a foodie and that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you have heard it before. Rubino is a two-time winner of the New York Time’s Critics’ Choice Award for one thing. The new menu takes risks in delicious ways and even lets customers have final say over what ultimately ends up on their plates. I got to sample a number of dishes before they rolled it all out this past week and, man, are they, each of them, lip-smacking.
Rubino didn’t just design a new menu, but he designed an entirely new process. First, you choose your base (aromatic jasmine rice, mixed greens and baby lettuces, non-GMO French demi baguette, or buttermilk grits), then you choose your protein (sliced, seasoned broiled chicken, tender hand-pulled pork, or marinated oven-roasted tofu) and finally, the fun part: The handcrafted flavor (Southwest Sonoma, Pan Asian, taste of India, or Mediterranean island.) If it sounds like I’m schilling for The Camp House, you’ll have to pardon me. This is an opinion column after all and my opinion is that the food is good, the new process unique, and the atmosphere, as always, vibrant and welcoming.
It remains debatable whether or not you can actually create culture or just foster its growth. Somehow, I think, it’s both. I find myself grateful for and strangely humbled by The Camp House. Bringing a new lunch menu with a fun new lunch process is The Camp House recognizing itself for what it is: a cultural hub here in town. Doing something new in a place where ideas about local and even national culture whizz through the air daily shows a kind of respect to its patrons. As if The Camp House itself was saying to Chattanooga: I believe in you. Keep coming here. Keep doing what you’re doing in this city, for this city. It’s really, really important.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.