The dinner table tells a story. Gathered in regional reverence, devout worshipers of the dining divine keep time to culinary tradition, nourishing the soul as well as the body. Taking a meal is a multi-layered celebration weaving through generations, tradition and culture. A sudden wave of news copy on the popularity, rediscovery and dare I say appreciation of Southern foods has not only resonated with my taste buds, but my memories as well. I surely don’t believe nor make the claim that the South holds the patent on dinner table philosophies, but sitting down to the Southern dinner table is an intended event. It doesn’t matter if the table is set for cornbread, red beans and rice or chicken fried anything with all the fixings- eating is far from simply a practice in sustenance. As cliche as it might sound, food in the South is prepped, cooked, baked, fried or grilled from the soul.
Culinary tastes, rituals and traditions of cooking and dining vary from state to state, dining table to dining table across the South, but the core principles of preparing and sharing good food are uncomplicated, simple and basic. If you cook, bake, fry, boil, grill, can, preserve or pickle it, they will come. The differences between the ways of my Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana relatives always seemed to warrant a they don’t do it like this in _____________. The shared commonality between the Texas and Tennessee masses boil down to simple dining vocabulary. Dinner is the meal eaten in the middle of the day and supper is the meal eaten in the evening.
Breaking bread with the Texas family came with rituals and a throwback vibe all its own. The dining room table was for the adults, and the kitchen table was for the kids. Soft white bread on a china bread and butter plate was as close to a bread basket as you were gonna get. My Aunt Sis was as full of sass as she was wit and lightening quick with an answer and a serving spoon. This firecracker’s table came equipped with its own GPS system-grease, preserves and salt. Grease was the answer for everything, a pressed glass compote dish filled with homemade pear preserves never left the center of the table, and salt was not an acquired taste- it was a required taste.
The ladies in both my Texas and Louisiana family subscribed to the take down the china, fill the crystal to the rim and put a hint of silver on the situation school of thought. When questioned why a middle of the week dinner called for a fine lace tablecloth and a china pattern worthy of royalty, Sis would shoot back with a, “Well, hon, what’s the use of having the stuff if you don’t use it?” I knew there was wisdom in her words, and they resonate with me to this day each time I open the doors to the china cabinet. Life is too short not to use the good china, crystal and table linens every day. You can quote me and Aunt Sis on it.
Does any of this ring a familiar dinner bell with you? In continuation and reflection of the traditions and tastes of the Southern dinner table, my Tennessee family round the Southern dinner table traditions will be the subject of my next post.