Oct 02., 2016 / Being Southern
What does it mean to be a Southerner? Certainly, there are many ways to define us and we can be a little complicated. After all, we have our little idiosyncrasies from state to state, even in different areas within our states. For instance, in my native North Carolina, we cook barbecue…not a general term for what you do with a grill or inclusive of all kinds of grilled or smoked meats. In North Carolina, native barbecue is always pork, cooked in a pit or smoker. It is a specific dish, not just a style of cooking. There is a variance between the eastern part of the state and the western region about how the meat should be cared for after cooking. After the pork is either pulled or chopped, it boils down to how to “dress” it. In eastern NC the sauce used is vinegar based and includes some salt, black pepper, red pepper, and maybe a very small amount of white sugar or brown sugar. In the western part of the state, you find a tomato based sauce. I have eaten both and like both, though I’m from the eastern part of the state and prefer the vinegar base. Perhaps you noticed that I mentioned the need to properly “dress” the barbecue. This is because too much of this sauce keeps the barbecue from being authentic. I had a friend who ate it for the first time and told me he didn’t like it because all he could taste was vinegar. That saddened me because I knew he had not gotten the “good stuff”. It has to be done so the smoky flavor of the meat is foremost and the sauce just enhances the overall flavor. This is a good example of differences even within our individual states.
So getting back to our initial question I believe I have isolated one very general expression that describes us. Within it are a few principles that comprise it and spell out who and what we are. I am proud of it and my roots but not in an arrogant sense.
Neither should you think I am unaware of our many failures as Southerners. There are things of which I am ashamed, past occurrences that still sadden me, and some of our history that I wish I could erase. However, if we can pare away these malfunctions and refuse to return to their influence, much as one would peel an apple, we discover the fruit and core of what it really means to be a Southerner. When you do so there is discovery of love and kindness far removed from animosities that some have assigned to us in a stereotypical way regarding people of other races, locations, and cultures
The culture, the real heart of the South…how does one describe it? Though one might delve into lots of details I think the point could be missed if our words were too detailed. There is a term often mentioned in regard to the South but unless you grew up in it, it is just a term…Southern hospitality.
It isn’t something reserved for those who came from somewhere else nor is it a tool that we use to impress. It always has been every day practice, a normal part of life each day. Southern hospitality is inclusive of us all. I grew up in it as both an observer and participant.
One of the key elements of Southern hospitality is manners. Manners were taught and practiced in our homes, respect was given to the elderly, those in civil authority, teachers, and preachers. There was also a wholesale and healthy respect afforded people in general, regardless of their station in life. It was often noted by the simple responses of “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am” or “yes sir” or “no sir”. We didn’t even have to think about it because it was implanted from an early age. I realize our modern culture may dismiss these responses and others associated with our lifestyle but I believe those who practice them are still served well.
Most of the people I grew up around would be called “blue collar” today. They were hard working, dirt under the fingernails, earn your keep people, often with farmers’ tans. In fact, the “white collar” people were few and far between. In our community, there wasn’t the slightest hint of elitism where some were considered above others. Certainly, there was an occasional “bad apple” but if that was the case most had little to do with such people.
Thankful and Appreciative
Appreciation and thankfulness were paramount in our raising. My father never left the table without thanking my mother for the tasty meals she cooked and served to us. I still remember his wisdom when he looked at me across the table and said, “Always thank whoever feeds you.” It will forever be in practice in my life. It is integral to Southern hospitality.
My mother also told me that if I was invited to someone’s house for a birthday party or other event to always thank the person who invited me and whatever adults were hosting it. She also insisted that I accept any such invitation and to show appreciation. Due to this, there was more than one birthday party I went to where I was the only boy present.
There was also a deep appreciation for others and their unique abilities. A man named Clarence Baker and his wife Evelyn were friends of our family. Clarence farmed but also was known for being able to repair anything. If something was broken that daddy could not repair, he called Clarence. There was never any money exchanged as that would have been an insult. However, when the watermelons were ripe daddy would always take several to the Baker home. That’s the way it worked. It wasn’t done with thoughts of repayment but appreciation.
Friendship was valued in the culture in which I lived and being friendly to everyone was expected and practiced. I was raised initially “out in the country”, a term that signified rural people who did not live in town. We lived in a small farming community, where my father ran a little grocery store in addition to farming cotton and raising a few hogs. The hogs were not for sale. They were for the table, our table. It was the same for the other families where we lived so once a year the neighbors made a decision about when to harvest the pork. They’d pick a time of very cold weather so there would be no spoilage while doing the processing, generally January or February. It was known as the community “hog killin’.” I know the term is not a pretty one but it was accurate. It was done with amazing efficiency and cooperation. Everyone chipped in, young and old. Once the first meat was harvested some of the ladies headed to the house to prepare a meal for everyone. That cooperation among friends, real friends who cared for one another, and extended that friendship in practical ways was a key element in the Southern hospitality I’ve known.
When I was six we moved into town where my daddy opened a new neighborhood grocery store. However, our town was an agricultural town. At that time, it was the site of the world’s largest tobacco market and there were many businesses that were support for the farming that went on around the town…suppliers, banks, feed and seed stores. and many others. And Southern hospitality did not cease once we moved into town. It was prevalent wherever we were. It is something that is integral to our lives and we take it with us everywhere we go.
Manners, thankfulness, appreciation, and friendship…four great characteristics of Southern hospitality. Now two more…faith and food.
There was a healthy respect for faith in the South I knew as a child, whether one was a believer or not. Public ridicule of faith was pretty much unheard of, not common practice, and was very frowned upon. People practiced their faith by acting on what they said they believed. They did their best to love God and love their neighbor. This fostered a lot of sharing and acts of kindness, especially from gardens and orchards.
Someone shared their collard greens while someone else shared their peaches. When they heard someone was sick they didn’t say “let me know if you need something.” They took a meal to them or some home remedy they thought would help them. Their faith was at the core of their actions.
The food…oh, the food. And contrary to popular belief people from the South don’t fry everything (but we do fry some!) The Southern food I grew up on would have compared to “peasant food” in other cultures…a term that is not offensive to me. I’ve eaten such food in many places in this world…Romania, India, Moldova, and others. It is always simple fare, nothing fancy, much of it home grown, and fabulous. As I grew older I found myself in other Southern places that also lived out this hospitality, especially in regard to food.
Years later I was in the Navy and found myself in the Memphis area for some training. I had a friend who played the harmonica while I played guitar. We were in a park down by the Mississippi River playing some old blues songs. A very nice black couple came and stood by us, enjoying the music. When we finished a song they introduced themselves and said they ran a little café on Beale Street. This was before Beale street was full of neon. They wanted to know if we’d come to their restaurant and play that night. They said they didn’t have any money to pay us but they would “pass the hat “and feed us really good. We did and they did and it was an amazing time. We made a few dollars but the best part of the evening was the food. I could have just as easily been sitting at my mother’s table according to the flavor. There was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens, black eyed peas, corn bread, and banana pudding for dessert. Some would call it “soul food”, some would say it was “country cookin’” or “home cookin’.” I don’t care what you call it but it was great and exactly the food of my raising.
Southern hospitality…sweet, thankful, friendly, faithful, and flavorful…a simple yet I believe accurate description and a term that I believe in, proud of, and endeavor to emulate.