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Sharing in the Story of Southern Hospitality

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Sharing in the Story of Southern Hospitality

Joseph Smith

 

This piece was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.


Growing up in the South has been a unique experience; my upbringing has been fostered by arguably the most distinct and well-preserved regional culture in our country, one that is often recognized and celebrated for its pride in tradition by visitors and (definitely) natives alike. It’s hard to deny how significant the carryover is from generation to generation, whether we’re talking about our carb-loaded homemade recipes, the always-charming accent, or that trademark sweet tea. These cultural staples always seem to inhabit some form of narrative—there’s a story about how your uncle used to do this or how the neighborhood mailman would say that which brings a certain spirit of nostalgia and conviction to how we live now. (“My Mama always baked her biscuits the right way, so I’m doing it that way, too!”) There’s such a sense of life in our favorite customs because they are what give us life! And at the end of the day, this is where cultures make a name for themselves, right? Their ability to grow relationships and sustain communities in some mysterious way is what makes them so fascinating to learn about and so attractive to be a part of. This means that culture-making, in its essence, takes place through an expression of hospitality. A lot of times this requires having some kind of sense of knowing what your neighbor likes or is interested in and then being intentional about making an effort to connect with them in their sweet spot. But sometimes it just requires having plain ole empathy and showing them that they’re worth the time and energy it takes to share a piece of your lives together.

Sometimes [hospitality] just requires having plain ole empathy and showing them that they’re worth the time and energy it takes to share a piece of your lives together.

My mom, a card-carrying Southern woman, prized herself on going the extra mile in this department. As a kid, whenever we would have guests come over for dinner or have family from out of town come in for the weekend, the intensity level in our home would crank up a few notches the day before in order to have things looking/smelling/sounding their best by the time company was at the door. I’ll never forget about the first time my now sister-in-law came home with my brother for Christmas, and by that, I mean that I’ll never forget the days leading up to that visit when I spent more time on my hands and knees cleaning bathrooms, floorboards, and kitchen cabinets to the point of total exhaustion and having a souring attitude of why this girl was so important. We had allowed for a little recovery time before her arrival, and when she and my brother walked through the door we knew that it was finally time to simply enjoy the time together because all of the work had already been done. This not only served the functional purpose of tidying things up, but it also showed my sister-in-law, and all of our other guests, how important the visit was to our family, and that who we’re preparing for is worth all of the work and thought that’s put in leading up to the event.

I think this remains true for all forms of hospitality. It’s not serving someone our favorite recipes at dinner or initiating interesting conversation in the living room that we think about moments before someone’s at our door. It’s a decision we make well before any of that. It’s a decision we make about our attitude that simply reflects that we care. And there’s nowhere else this attitude is so widely shared than in the South. I haven’t learned to care for others through my family alone; whether it’s church members or ball coaches, the people who’ve surrounded me from the beginning have taken it upon themselves to show me how to both share and receive hospitality graciously in a manner that pays tribute to the story of how they once learned the virtue. As I slowly begin to grow older, it becomes more and more important to me that I, too, share in the cultural pride of offering what I have to others, so that life can continue to be given to those who’ve given it to me. That’s what I love about Southern hospitality: we’re all in this thing together, from beginning to end.


Joseph Smith is an all-American boy who works at theCO as an intern.

Photography and illustration by Katie Howerton.