Southern Hospitality by Scott Huler

A single fact renders pointless all debate about whether to live north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line. You can talk about college basketball or NASCAR or barbecue or grits until the metaphorical cows come home — you’ll alienate as many people as you convince, I’m sure of it. Those are all topics that prompt debate, that profit from debate. But when I moved to North Carolina from Philadelphia, within a week I realized I had come home. My awakening involved soda pop.

In a cozy booth with coworkers, I decided to give myself the treat of a second Diet Pepsi as I lingered over lunch with these newfound friends. The waitress refilled my glass and did an amazing thing — she did not pick up the bill and scrawl in another drink, the way Philadelphia waitresses did to my lunch checks for a decade. I thought I’d found a special restaurant I’d return to for years. That happened to be true, but by the end of the first week of those welcome-to-town lunches, I realized something: That’s just how it works here in the South. You get as many sodas — or iced teas — as you want with lunch. You can get involved in a good conversation, decide the heck with work, and sit there until 3 p.m. And the drinks just keep coming.

To me, that tastes a lot like heaven.

Of course, I soon realized: That’s not heaven; it’s just the perfect expression of Southern hospitality. The endless soda pop refill is “Go on, set a spell” made flesh. The free refill says, “You had enough, Sug? You sure? Lemme just get you a little more. Stick around. Don’t hurry off. Be comfortable. Stay.”

But hospitality has another side, of course, and soon after I moved to the South — 20 years ago, mind you — I experienced that, too. I went to dinner at a nationally known Durham restaurant one evening and emerged four hours later, glassy eyed, with the Northern members of my party delighted: “Now that,” they said, “was Southern hospitality.” 

“No,” I said. “That was a hostage drama.” That wasn’t, Welcome. That was, Stick around whether you like it or not; you are going to sit there and claw your way through our food performance and our three different dessert services, and we’ll tell you when you’re full. That wasn’t hospitality — that was showing off. It was manipulation served on a bed of grits. “Oh, no, folks, you ain’t done yet,” that restaurant said. “Stay.”

•••

Stay: that ultimate expression of hospitality, somewhere between request and command, not only the urge to a beloved guest, but also the rebuke to a misbehaving child or dog. In the lunch booth, with the free soda pop and the ceiling fans and the chummy waitress, Southern hospitality is all it’s chalked up to be: It’s 12-molar, 190-proof distilled essence of welcome, and aren’t you sweet? But at the restaurant where you can’t leave until they bring you a bill, and they won’t bring it until they’re good and done with you, it’s about control, not welcome. It’s a little bit more like Grandma’s insistence on red velvet cake and seven-layer cake and chocolate cake after Sunday dinner — but everybody has to make one and bring it, and don’t even think about getting up from the table until you’ve tried all three, and, meanwhile, greens turn to glop on the stove and dressing dries out in the oven and Grandma accidentally lays the potatoes down on the settee, a case of nerves brought on by the strain of all these guests that she demanded come over. I have endured this kind of hospitality in the family of my beloved wife, a native of this state, and I have seen the toll it takes on host and guest alike. “A tyrannical Southern insistence on hospitality” is how David Denby described it in a recent New Yorker review. “Graciousness,” he concluded, “is both armor and a weapon.”

Denby is far from the first to note that Southern hospitality has its dark side. Roy Blount Jr. discussed it in his famous essay “The Lowdown on Southern Hospitality.” “The truth is, irritation is involved in Southern hospitality,” Blount writes. “Nothing … is sweeter than mounting irritation prolongedly held close to the bosom.”

Good point, but I have to ask: That applies to all hospitality, does it not? I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and although I welcome guests and love to share bed, board, and company, I’m usually tired of the visitors almost from the moment they take off their coats. In any case, I’m internally rehearsing my many sacrifices on their behalf and looking forward to when they leave. I think that irritation attends all hospitality, and it highlights the complexity of the human condition rather than anything particularly Southern.

Not so the free soda pop — that is definitely a Southern thing. Seriously — I return to this time after time because it has real meaning to me. I have encouraged people to move to North Carolina for the free soda pop alone. I have grown so familiar with the free refills at some of my favorite haunts that I have been welcomed to go behind the bar and get it myself, like a houseguest finally, after a prolonged stay, no longer waited on but given free rein to the fridge and cupboards. Now that is hospitality.

I came to the South as a journalist, so from the start, I was showing up on people’s porches and doorsteps, imposing on their hospitality, and let me say straightforwardly: That hospitality never failed. I would ask shocking questions about their organ transplants and their murdered children, their strange customs and their perplexing works of art. They would share their stories with me, and we would laugh together, cry together, eat together. I used to drive home from one tidy farm or another, heading back to Raleigh, sun dipping low, and remind myself: Every person I met that day — every person who cooked me hot dogs or brought me cookies from the pot luck or, yes, endlessly refilled my glass — every one of those people probably voted for … for someone for whom I would never vote. But there I went, and they opened their homes and their lives to me, and sent me on my way with not just a good story but, chances are, a plate covered with foil for my wife. Remember this, I would say to myself. This is where you live. This is how people do here.

•••

So, OK, there’s something to this hospitality business. But from where? And since when? If you go to the books — I always go to the books — you quickly learn that like many things perceived as stereotypically Southern, hospitality has a flavor more rural than simply Southern. That is, the roots of this famous hospitality probably stem from the fact that the South, unlike the citified North, was a community of mostly farms, large and small.

In A History of the South, Francis Butler Simkins and Charles Pierce Roland say “the cult of Southern hospitality” expressed “a means of relieving the loneliness of those living far from each other.” A new friend once pressed hospitality on me on Malta, the island at the belly button of the Mediterranean. When I suggested I could not possibly be as welcome a guest as he made me seem, he explained: “We live on an island. We wait for people like you.” Loneliness powerfully motivates hospitality. On a more basic level, when it took half a day to get to the neighbors, you’d better get more than a ladle of water and a nod from the porch when you rode up.

On the other hand, Frederick Law Olmsted, who traveled throughout the South before the Civil War and wrote of his experiences, expected to pay 75 cents or more each night for the hospitality he received. Hospitality had become a myth even before then. Jacob Abbott’s 1835 New England, and Her Institutions describes a traveler riding “through Virginia or Carolina” who is all but kidnapped for no other reason than for the householder he visits to shower him with hospitality. Abbott claims that such hospitality explains why the taverns of the South were so poor: “so they must continue, as long as Southerners are as free, and generous, and open-hearted as they now are.” Apocryphal stories abounded of plantation owners who had slaves waylay strangers into their clutches, the better to demonstrate hospitality. The slaves, meanwhile, presumably knew what it felt like to be required to stay rather longer than they might have wished.

The competitive hospitality macho of, say, the Twelve Oaks barbecue in Gone with the Wind is long gone, and with it the perceived need to try to dress up the overzealous hospitality of slavery. The “cult of hospitality,” however, remains. As late as 1972, Simkins and Roland explained that in the Old South “the forests, the fields, and the streams gave abundantly of their produce,” and even a small Southern farm encouraged hospitality by providing its owner with “nearly all the vegetables known to the American housekeeper of the twentieth century.” In some ways that seems to predict the modern Southern gardener creeping to the neighbor’s door in dark of night to “hospitably” abandon a bushel of excess zucchini. More important, of course, it seems highly optimistic, as does their claim that frugality was unnecessary because “everything was plentiful and inexpensive.” On the other hand, it seems reasonable that “vegetables and eggs were perishable” — every Carolina child less than a couple of generations from the fields knows that pound cake was just a way to find a way to store a pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. Still, with hungry family and farmhands — to say nothing of slaves — it seems unlikely that farmers were inveigling unwary passersby to their overburdened groaning boards just to avoid throwing away good food.

•••

Whatever its origins and however extreme its exaggerations, only a fool would claim that hospitality has vanished from the modern South. If you think I was thrilled when I first discovered the Miracle of the Endless Soda Pop, I only wish you could have seen me at my first NASCAR race, wandering the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway from grill to grill, from cooler to cooler, getting fuller and more hospitable with every step. One almost had to duck to avoid the constantly proffered beer, the beckoning burger or barbecue. And if the cries at bikini-clad women in the infield strained propriety, nobody who has walked the infield trails can deny that in the face of such rudeness many a young woman has been moved nonetheless to show her … hospitality.

An even greater modern expression of Southern hospitality comes at the end of a pickup tailgate in the parking lot around, say, Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh any time after 10 a.m. on a home Saturday in the fall (although the stadium could just as easily be Dowdy-Ficklen in Greenville, or Kidd Brewer in Boone; this tradition spreads over the state like red clay runoff from a construction site). In these pregame parking rituals, that antebellum competitive hospitality has returned: Graciousness, Denby said, is both armor and weapon. The clang of battle rings, with SUVs rocking cookware that would make the chef at that restaurant that once held me hostage weep with envy. And high-end bourbon whiskey? You don’t even have to bring your own cup. These people want you to have a good time — and to admit how much better their Bloody Mary or barbecue sauce is than the one across the lane.

Yes, graciousness is armor and weapon. But it’s also, simply, gracious. Southern hospitality may have started because Southerners were a rural people, and it may have codified into a fierce code and a laughable myth — how many steps from Scarlett to Clampett? It may cover our greatest sins and enable our most manipulative behaviors. But it also lets us, as a group, agree on something. Down here, in the South, we’re nice to each other. We’re nice to whoever shows up. We share; we’ve got enough. Stick around and enjoy a little more. Don’t hurry off. Sure, you’re a Yankee, but here you are, and here we are, and have a little more soda pop, and tell me something I don’t know yet. Be with us — be one of us. Be comfortable.

We’re glad you’re here.

Stay.

Scott Huler’s articles appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, and Backpacker and Fortune magazines. He has written several books, including his most recent, On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that make Our World Work. He served as the 2011 Piedmont Laureate and lives in Raleigh with his wife and two children. Scott’s most recent story for Our State was “The Space to Improvise” (April 2012).

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