A Gracious Plenty

My paternal grandmother’s family came from St. Gallen, Switzerland, to settle in the deep south, where most of them would end up farming the land. My grandmother, who was raised a Southern lady through and through, had a wonderful saying when she welcomed guests to her table: “Please help yourself. We have a gracious plenty.”

For me, that saying is the essence of Southern hospitality. It sums up all my memories of gathering around the table to share a meal—whether it be a cozy family supper, a celebratory feast, a scrumptious holiday spread, or a festive night on the town at a special restaurant. There was always a gracious plenty of family and friends, but even more so, of food. Although it’s the occasion that brings us together, in the South it’s always about the food. We have plenty and we share graciously, or not at all.

I was fortunate to be raised on a farm which had been in the family for generations. By necessity, we were into the farm-to-table movement before it was cool. Everything we ate, we grew—vegetables, fruit, berries, poultry, pork, beef, fish. Harvest was a time of celebration, when neighbors called each other to say they had a bumper crop of butterbeans, field peas, tomatoes or peaches. Come over, was the cry. We have a gracious plenty. Sometimes it was harvest of a different kind: My father would drive down to the coast and return with oysters, shrimp, or saltwater fish. He’d bring back enough to share for a neighborly oyster roast, or a fish fry, served up with dishpans of hushpuppies and coleslaw.

A lot of pride went into the preparing and presentation of food. Cooks sought to outdo each other at occasions like family reunions and church suppers, much to everyone’s delight. Whose pies had the highest meringue or the flakiest crusts? Which chicken was fried to a crispy perfection, and which buttermilk biscuits the fluffiest? The cook’s reward comes more from the enjoyment their special dishes brings to others than from the accolades. The preparation and sharing of food is the Southern way of showing love and grace to one another.

Things have changed since those days when most Southerners lived off the land, yet the essence of hospitality in the South remains the same. We invite friends and family to sit with us and have a meal. It doesn’t matter if it’s in our home, on a picnic table, at a church supper, or a newly-discovered restaurant. The point is to get together to share food and good times. We tell stories, and many of them center around shared memories of food. Maybe the hostess serves up a dish that’s her take on an old family recipe. Or the chef of the new restaurant learned to cook at his grandmother’s knee. We might recall the last time we were together, and what we ate that was so good. Even the disasters turn out to be fun in the retelling. Whatever the memory, we want to hear the story. In the South, food memories always come with a story. And here, we have a gracious plenty of both.