Southern Hospitality and the Southern Porch Culture

In an article on ‘Why it’s different in the South’, chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson report what they have found having moved to Nashville, Tennessee:

It sounds clichéd, but I truly believe that there is a strong sense of pride in hospitality in the South. Being a host here is really viewed as an honor and is taken quite seriously in fact. The lengths people go to, to make sure their guests feel welcome, whether it’s in their home or their restaurant or in their store, is really above and beyond anywhere I have ever been. It’s a part of what makes experiences here so special…

One specific thing that we’ve noticed in Nashville is people genuinely want to know you. They want to know about your family, what you do on your off time, what football team you root for. People just want to feel connected to one another in the South more so than in any other part of the country. Overall, Southerners want you to feel comfortable and welcomed in every setting – it’s as simple as that.[1]

I experienced this first-hand during my trip to Mississippi. In the dining car on the first train, a lady from Louisiana was quick to make me feel at ease and we had a wide-ranging conversation about Southern food and culture, as well as my family, my job, life in England, and so on. All the staff were likewise extremely friendly and eager to help.

I also experienced the same welcoming spirit at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, as well as at Chimneyville Smokehouse.

This culture of hospitality has deep roots:

Southern hospitality was really just a fact of life during the Civil War era. USC Aiken professor and author Dr. Tom Mack said that the South was not as urbanized as the North, especially during the War Between the States. The majority of the South was still quite rural, and there were few to no public houses, hotels or inns such as those in the North. Travelers to the South found themselves spending their nights in private residences. Mack added that Southern hospitality can also be connected to religious practices, citing the story of the good Samaritan in the Bible and the idea of helping that stranger on the road. As time passed, the concept of Southern hospitality seemed to stick.[2]

Cody Anderson, a young advocate of traditional Southern culture, states of Southern hospitality:

I think it defines us. It goes back to the golden rule. Southern people believe that we’re here for such a short time, we have to value life. We have to enjoy it and make the most of it by loving those around us.[3]

When British freelance journalist Richard Grant and his wife moved to the Mississippi Delta, they found themselves in a different world to their previous home of New York City:

Mississippians were generally puzzled by our arrival, but warm and welcoming. As we were unpacking, an African-American tractor driver stopped by and talked for an hour. On the second day, a white family from Pluto came over with a bottle of wine and a selection of guns to shoot. Cathy Thompson, a labor and delivery nurse, had bought an AK-47 for stress relief during menopause…

Noting our lack of furniture, Cathy went through her storage areas and produced two beds, a couch, a kitchen table and chairs, two armchairs and two wingback chairs. “Y’all can have this stuff on permanent loan,” she said. “And I noticed y’all just have the one vehicle. That’s going to get inconvenient out here, so I want you to drive our Envoy whenever you need to, and think of it as your second vehicle. I’ll show you where the keys are.”

Another neighbor showed up with a cord of split firewood, a bottle of Glenlivet and an engraved silver ice bucket as housewarming gifts. A third insisted on keeping our grass cut for the rest of the summer.[4]

Writer Winona Dimeo-Ediger reports of similar experiences upon moving to Nashville:

Since Nick and I moved into our house, the elderly man who lives across the street has yelled, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” approximately 14 times. It never gets old. Coming from Portland, which is known as a friendly city, we thought we were prepared for Southern hospitality, but we had no idea just how much smiling, waving, and “How you doin’, darlin’”s would be involved in daily life here.[5]

Such hospitality is particularly facilitated by the long-running Southern tradition of porch sitting. In the days before the availability of air conditioning, Southern families sat on front porches while their houses cooled down in the evening. Communal gatherings on porches often incorporated extended family members and neighbours, and the porch became a place for conversation, story-telling, music, and other activities.

African American poet Frenchy Jolene Hodges recalls the kind of tales she heard on the front porch while growing up:

If-you-do-this-that’ll-happen-stories,
The-dead-who-visit-the-living-stories,
Daddy-you-made-it-end-wrong stories,
Tell-that-one-again-stories,
That-don’t-make-no-sense-stories…[6]

The porch (both front and back) continues to hold an important place in Southern culture today:

Walk through any Southern neighborhood, and you’ll see people sitting on their porches, waving genially at passersby. Rocking chairs are often involved, and people think nothing of shouting entire conversations to their neighbors across the street so both parties can continue porch sitting.[7]

Edmund Standing
Some photos I took in Mississippi, showing typical Southern front porches, including a porch swing (top left) and a porch gathering (bottom right)

In addition to being a place in which people – and dogs – like to sit, the porch is also connected to the Southern love of gatherings and parties:

The allure of Southern parties has been extolled in many a country song, and for good reason — in the summer especially, there is no shortage of backyard cookouts, lakeside dance parties, and front porch hangouts. Parties here don’t need an ironic theme or extensive planning; they require only cold beer, good food, and preferably a guitar or two.[8]

Country songs aplenty celebrate this aspect of Southern life. Two typical contemporary pop country examples follow:

We’re just sippin’ moonshine, watchin’ chicken fry
And makin’ that swing swing side to side…

Swamp air comin’ through the screen door
Bare feet stompin’ on the wood floor
We’re just diggin’ it, finger lickin’, pickin’ out in the country
Yeah, we’re just some front porch junkies

Thomas Rhett – Front Porch Junkies

Leave your trouble at the door
No cover charge, get in for free
No last call, let’s party on a back porch…

Little hottie swingin’ up in the swings
Them good ol’ boys pickin’ six strings

Dierks Bentley – Back Porch


References:

[1] http://eatocracy.cnn.com/2012/02/14/55-why-its-different-in-the-south/

[2] http://www.aikenstandard.com/article/20130921/AIK0101/130929922

[3] http://www.aikenstandard.com/article/20130921/AIK0101/130929922

[4] http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/opinion/sunday/sweet-home-mississippi.html

[5] http://www.thefrisky.com/2013-06-10/10-uniquely-awesome-things-about-living-in-the-south/

[6] Quoted in Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon (2001) Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture (The University of North Carolina Press): 3-4.

[7] http://www.thefrisky.com/2013-06-10/10-uniquely-awesome-things-about-living-in-the-south/

[8] http://www.thefrisky.com/2013-06-10/10-uniquely-awesome-things-about-living-in-the-south/

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