The Southern Dinner Table Part 2

We’re moving on up and over a few states to the country road, rolling hills and mountains of East Tennessee for the Southern Dinner Table Part 2.

see-rock-cityTake me home, country roads and See Rock City signs!

Southern in style with only the slightest hint of hillbilly coming through, the delicious differences that set the Southern dinner table in Tennessee style defined the spirit of what coming together for a meal is really all about.  Up first in the Texas vs. Tennessee Southern dinner table comparison taste tests is bread.  In the thoughts and palettes of my Texas and Tennessee family there was and is no room for discussion.  When in Texas fresh soft white bread places in a bread and butter saucer graced the dinner and supper table.   When in Tennessee cornbread is considered the bread of life.


A hot black skillet swimming in Crisco seasoned the cornbread batter made from White Lily meal and flour added extra calories, extra lovin’ for the oven, and a guaranteed golden crisp crust on the bottom, top and edges so divine it seemed a shame to consume.


Home grown tomatoes topped with a thin layer of mayonnaise and a thick dusting of fine black pepper claimed the title of table staple.  Fresh vegetables were more a rule than an exception, and just as it was in the kitchens of Texas grease, and plenty of it, played an intricate role in the flavor quotient.


There was never any misunderstanding the theory of the Tennessee Southern dinner table.  The recipe to make it work was one part the way it used to be done mixed with one part the way it used to be done.  In other words, forget about teaching these old dogs a new trick.  The ladies of Fountain City, Northwood, Oakwood and central Louisiana stood in an unairconditioned kitchen cooking from mid-morning until late afternoon. My paternal grandmother and her sisters believed cooking was meant to be an all day event.  Louisianians are also known for our epic all day and all night cooking marathons.  Slow and low- just the way Southern flavor intended.


Practicality suited this anything but pretentious crowd, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.   A framed copy of Eric Enstom’s Grace appropriately hung on the breakfast nook wall, the one memento I requested to have “one day.”  Wafer thin china plates perfectly matched to equally thin iced tea glasses completed the last step before calling the men into the kitchen dining area for dinner.

Wait.  What?

That’s right.  The women and girls moved into the living room where we sat patiently in the air conditioning waiting for the men to eat dinner.   An archaic practice at first impression, this was the way it was done in my grandmother’s home, her mother’s home and her mother’s mother’s home.


Size and space, or lack thereof.

The kitchens in the homes of my Tennessee family members were small spaces of utilitarian works.  Kitchen design and decor of the north, south, east and west has come a long way, baby.  Grits and biscuits may be a Southern thing, but lack of space is a universal thing.


I don’t believe nor make the claim that the South holds the patent on dinner table philosophies.  What I do know from first hand experience and delicious feedback is there is a shared conclusion among the faithful and the converted who have witnessed, experienced and savored the mechanics of the Southern dinner table that it is truly a unique case study of common threads running deep through blended traditions.

“Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.”

~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

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The Southern Dinner Table

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 at the Southern dinner table 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 of times spent gathered around the Southern dinner table.


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.  From Southern farm, garden, market or waterway to Southern dinner table, the prepping, cooking, baking, frying, boiling or grilling is a culinary event.


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 is uncomplicated, simple and basic.  If you cook, bake, fry, roast, barbecue, 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 whichever two states you were not breaking bread in.   The shared commonality between the Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana masses boil down to simple dining vocabulary.

Dinner is the meal eaten in the middle of the day.

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.  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.

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