Southern Hospitality: Then And Now

A moment of hospitality in Django Unchained . . . until the raw ugliness of slavery appears again and all hell breaks loose.  Slaves weave in and out, a mouth articulates racist physiognomy and all around plentiful, elaborate food.  This fictional scene echoes history, voices letters from the past.  In Culinary Conversations of The Plantation South from Writing in the Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways, Mary Cohen Ferris charts the descriptions and opinions of those traveling the roads of the antebellum south.

Like many travelers from the North, [Jeremiah] Evarts critized slavery when he witnessed the treatment of enslaved workers during elaborate plantation meals. “The state of the slaves, as physical, intellectual, and moral beings, is abject beyond my powers of description,” wrote Evarts. “Slaves have few conveniences for any kind of labor. They are obliged to every thing by the hardest” (Apr. 5, 1822). Referencing the abundance of the master’s table, Evarts commented on the irony that “while such unlimited profusion reigned on the table of the master, a large portion of his slaves rarely tasted flesh. At Christmas, indeed. All are feasted but generally the food of the plantation slaves is coarse and scanty.” (Apr. 5, 1822).

Tables weaken under all the gastronomic pleasure, but the price hovers all around serving to the needs of the guests.  The happiness that Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin calls for in his The Physiology of Taste disappears when sipping soup or placing a slice of roast pig belly in the mouth and the hunger and oppression of those attending fills the air.  Is this hospitality? The plantation table demands attention from everyone.

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All this work for the extravagance of the Southern Plantation table requires abundant labor through slavery and a mistress of the house spending her time focused on the meals of each day. Consider Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife: Or, Methodical Cook, originally published 1824.

The prosperity and happiness of a family depend greatly on the order and regularity established in it. The husband, who can ask a friend to partake of his dinner in full confidence of finding his wife unruffled by the pretty vexations attendant on the neglect of household duties — who can usher his guest into the dining-room assured of seeing that methodical nicety which is the essence of true elegance, — will feel pride and exultation in the possession of a companion, who gives to his home charms that gratify every wish of his soul, and render the haunts of dissipation hateful to him. The sons bred in such a family will be moral men, of steady habits; and the daughters, if the mother shall have performed the duties of a parent in the superintendence of their education, as faithfully as she has done those of a wife, will each be a treasure to her husband; and being formed on the model of an exemplary mother, will use the same means for securing the happiness of her own family, which she has seen successfully practised under the paternal roof.

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All this writing of virtue, and yet . . . . Chef Michael Twitty in his blog Afroculinaria, with his “Cooking Gene Project,” and his recreations of the food traditions of the American South and their performance of Edna Lewis’ insight into what is SouthernHow did southern food come into being? The early cooking of southern food was primarily done by blacks, men and women–emphasizes the tensions of this “southern hospitality,” which, of course, still exist today.

“Slaves in early America were forced to wear horse bits in their mouths because they were considered livestock,” Michael Twitty told me before taking a bite out of a slice of Edna Lewis’s sweet, lemony Tyler pie. “I usually don’t tell people that during my cooking demos because they don’t want to hear it.”

The work of researching and recreating and thereby transforming “Southern Hospitality” calls on historian and chef.  David Shields and Kevin Mitchell have collaborated to cast a look back in order to address the continuing problems of race and class divisions in America.  Here’s a taste from David Shields article Nat Fuller’s Feast in Common-Place.

Charleston, S.C., the hotbed of secession, surrendered to Union Forces on February 18, 1865. The Union Army’s occupation liberated the approximately 10,000 slaves who remained in the city. Among them was the Lowcountry’s greatest chef and restaurateur, Nat Fuller, who had spent most of his life as a slave (1812-1866). On February 22, 1865, Fuller catered a George Washington’s Birthday celebration for Union generals Webster and Gillmore; he fed them on the same china he employed when he catered Confederate General P. T. Beauregard’s ball celebrating the capture of Fort Sumter four years previously. Shortly thereafter he reclaimed 77 Church Street, the original site of his restaurant, the Bachelor’s Retreat. There he hosted a banquet sometime in late April, inviting his former white clients, members of the city’s African American elite, and certain members of the provisional government to be his guests. At the time, a daily rice ration fed the 15,000 occupants of the city. Fuller, who had known the provisioners of the Union Army from the time when he supplied Charleston’s game market in the 1850s, somehow managed to secure a bounty of supplies from his old friends.

The audacity of Nat Fuller’s Feast was immediately recognized. Mrs. Frances J. Porcher, having returned from her evacuation of the city, found the event remarkable: “Nat Fuller, a Negro caterer, provided munificently for a miscegenat dinner, at which blacks and whites sat on an equality and gave toasts and sang songs for Lincoln and Freedom.” This grand dame of Charleston planter society knew exactly the significance of the feast. It heralded a new kind of civil society and promised a new ground for civility. For the first time in South Carolina an African American stood as host at a table around which blacks and whites sat subject to his hospitality and generosity.

What Chef Kevin Mitchell has done is to put on Nat Fuller’s apron and offer food and hospitality to all races in Charleston with his contemporary Nat Fuller’s Feast.

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So where does this place us at the table of hospitality?  Let’s turn back to an ancient line of thinking when it comes to hospitality, I mean Aristotle’s views on liberality as a virtue in his Nicomachean Ethics.

It seems to be the mean with regard to wealth; for the liberal man is praised not in respect of military matters, nor of those in respect of which the temrate man is praised, nor of judicial decisions, but with regard to the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving. (Bk. IV)

In citing these words, Leon Kass in The Hungry Soul then makes the simple observation: Everyone with a home can freely invite others to enjoy his hospitality.

Think of Nestor’s welcome to Telemachus and Athena, disguised as Mentor in Samuel Butler’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

There they found Nestor sitting with his sons, while his company round him were busy getting dinner ready, and putting pieces of meat on to the spits while other pieces were cooking. When they saw the strangers they crowded round them, took them by the hand and bade them take their places. Nestor’s son Peisistratos at once offered his hand to each of them, and seated them on some soft sheepskins that were lying on the sands near his father and his brother Thrasymedes. Then he gave them their portions of the inward meats and poured wine for them into a golden cup, handing it to Athena first, and saluting her at the same time.  (Bk.3)

Before questions are asked of the strangers, before a determination of whether food should be given, liberality as hospitality welcomes the travelers in and feeds them until satiated.  This is not just a custom for the wealthy, Odysseus’ poor swineherd Eumaues also does the same when an old sailor lands on the shores of Ithaca–the old sailor being Odysseus in disguise.

As he spoke he bound his belt round him and went to the sties where the young sucking pigs were penned. He picked out two which he brought back with him and sacrificed. He singed them, cut them up, and spitted on them; when the meat was cooked he brought it all in and set it before Odysseus, hot and still on the spit, whereon Odysseus sprinkled it over with white barley meal. The swineherd then mixed wine in a bowl of ivy-wood, and taking a seat opposite Odysseus told him to begin.
“Fall to, stranger,” said he, “on a dish of servant’s pork. The fat pigs have to go to the suitors, who eat them up without shame or scruple; but the blessed gods love not such shameful doings, and respect those who do what is lawful and right [dikê].  (Bk.14)

The suitors of Penelope fit the profile for those who ignore liberality, ignore hospitality.  Nestor and Eumaeus embrace their guests by embracing the pleasure of serving another.  As Brilliant-Savarin writes, The pleasures of the table belong to all times and ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss.

How do we make up for the loss of so many lives given over to the “table” of the Antebellum Plantation, how to make up the loss of the “Jim Crow” decades, how do we atone for the displacement of Native American tribes, how do we honor the food traditions of Cajuns and Creoles, of Koreans and Vietnamese , of Europeans and West Africans?  Nat Fuller and Kevin Mitchell have the right idea–invite all to the table, the all who also cook the meals, write the cookbooks and keep alive their footways while also embracing their neighbor’s.  To me, that’s the new southern hospitality, that’s the 21st century American South.  I’ll sign off with JJ Grey and Mofro and Ho Cake.  Bon appétit!

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