Trying to define Southern culture is like trying to pin a butterfly to a cork board. Comparing Alabama to Maryland or the Carolinas is a fool's errand; a debate rages as to whether Texas is even "Southern." The Southern states are some of the most politically and ethnically diverse in the country (sure, we tend to vote Republican, except when we don't). And "Southern food" means so many different things, from the Cuban-American pork and plantains you'll find in Florida to the jambalaya and étouffée of Louisiana Creole cuisine.
But something happens when you walk down the street in Houston or Charleston that you'd never expect up north: People smile and say hello. That friendly disposition may be one of the few true truisms of the American South, and it's the guiding principle behind our famously warm hospitality.
Here are five things all Southern hosts know — all of which you can take to heart no matter where you live.
1. They know how to steer a respectable conversation.
It's nearly impossible not to talk Washington these days, but that old chestnut about staying away from politics and religion is particularly true at a Southern table. (You never know what kind of company you're in and it's best to just not go there.) A good host knows how to divert conversation away from troubled waters.
A few good replacements: new restaurants people have recently been to, new movies, upcoming trips, and the like.
2. They know how to find an excuse for a party.
Good Southern hosts never let a life event go unacknowledged. "Sip 'n' Sees" provide an opportunity to put a baby on display; showers and luncheons bring Southerners together to celebrate engagements, pregnancies, and graduations; and during debutante season, you'd best have your schedule cleared.
How to track all of these events? Until the last days of her life, my grandmother — a deeply private person, but a world-class hostess — kept a fat datebook at her side that catalogued the various milestones of her nearest and dearest 600 friends. If she couldn't throw or attend a party, she'd be sure to drop by the home of the acquaintance of honor with a floral arrangement or jar of jam. There's no simpler way to be gracious than to remember an important date. Ideally, there's a party to celebrate. If not, there's always a visit.
Some Party Ideas
3. They know the branches of your family tree.
Don't expect to visit with a Southern host or hostess without catching her up on the lives of your relatives and closest friends: "How's your mama's sister's friend?" is likely to be a question she asks. While this may seem nosy, knowing about others' families and showing an interest in their well-being is just a given south of the Mason-Dixon line. (Guests would be wise not to share anything they wouldn't post on social media, however, because Southerners do have a reputation for idle chatter.)
4. They know to never send a guest home hungry.
One is apt to wonder why in the sometimes-sticky, sultry American South, the native cuisine is mostly heavy cold-weather fare. Eat more than a single serving, and you'll have a tough time staying awake behind the wheel on the way home. But good luck refusing a Southerner. "How 'bout a little more?" is a rhetorical question — you're getting it anyway.
Some Recipe Ideas
5. They know their Tupperware like the back of their hands.
Georgia-born Brownie Wise turned Tupperware parties into big business in the 1950s, blurring the boundaries between entrepreneurship and entertaining. The Tupperware party has become a thing of the past, but the sturdy plastic containers remain ubiquitous in Southerners' fridges and cupboards. There's no better way to lug a coconut cake to a Junior League luncheon than in a Tupperware cake-taker. If a Southerner lends you a piece of their Tupperware collection, be prepared to return it — or else.