Where Does “Southern Hospitality” Come From—and What Does It Mean Today?

The term has a complex history and has evolved over the years.

Diners tuck into a shrimp and crawdad boil.

Southern hospitality is all about togetherness, food, and community—but the term has a complicated past.

Photo by Vineyard Perspective/Shutterstock

For 2000s music fans, their first encounter with Southern hospitality might have been through Atlanta, Georgia’s own Ludacris. “Dirty South mind blowing Dirty South bread/Catfish fried up, Dirty South fed,” the rapper, who spent time in Chicago and Virginia before moving to Atlanta, intones on “Southern Hospitality” from his major label debut, Back for the First Time.

The song, released in late December 2000 and produced by the Virginia Beach group The Neptunes, is as much of a nod to the term itself as it is to “throwing bows” or fighting. It was a fitting song to bring in the new decade, as rap and hip-hop began their sonic shift from New York City to the South, where acts such as Atlanta’s Outkast, Memphis-born Three Six Mafia, and, yes, Ludacris began to plant flags in the genre—often with brash, aggressive lyrics aimed at taunting New Yorkers who, in turn, mocked the region as backwoodsy, uneducated, and far too friendly.

The song—which Ludacris later acknowledged he didn’t think would be a hit—nods to facets of the South both trope and factual in nature, from grills in mouths, Cadillacs, and scantily clad women to an Afro’d Ludacris who appears throughout the video. It highlights, perhaps unintentionally so, the dualities of Southern hospitality: greet with a smile, but don’t act up and be too familiar before it’s deserved. Southern hospitality is a mixture of many things: kindness, if not niceness, struggle—“Sleep in a cot'-picking Dirty South bed”—and community.

At face value, the term is intended to convey Southern Americans as warm, affable, and friendly to locals and outsiders alike. But it means many things to many people. It has a complicated history with painful origins in antebellum slavery and unspeakable violence doled out on the most vulnerable of the population.

The origins of “Southern hospitality”

Perhaps the most illuminating text on the origins of Southern hospitality is The Southern Hospitality Myth: Ethics, Politics, Race, and American Memory by University of Massachusetts Lowell professor of English Anthony Szczesiul.

The book begins with a quote by French philosopher Jacques Derrida: “We do not yet know what hospitality is.” Dr. Szczesiul writes that the term, which has roots in the antebellum South, came out of the sectional crisis of the 1850s: Southerners wanted to defend their rights to own slaves, which was a precursor to the Civil War. Dr. Szczesiul notes that Americans, Southern and Northern alike, were wrestling with the moral dilemma of slavery.

Slave labor, he argues, “made possible the social habits that came to be known in the 1830s” as Southern hospitality. “Against abolitionist attacks, the discourse of Southern hospitality provided an affirmation and a defense of Southern exceptionalism, as well as a subtle way of persuading non-Southerners to both admire and identify with Southerners and their cause,” Szczesiul writes.

A hot brown dish and chef and influencer Trent

Trent says that Southern hospitality is “a real thing: from the way we greet each other, to the way we gather, to the foods we eat.”

Photos by Rosemarie Mosteller/Shutterstock and TerraVisuals

Southern hospitality and food

Food is perhaps the most obvious expression of Southern hospitality—and a new generation of creatives are rethinking the concept today. For Trent, a Brooklyn-based chef with roots in the South and the Midwest, Southernness and a commitment to hospitality shape their passion for food.

Trent’s journey has taken winding, expansive roads. The former Miss Kentucky and top-ten Miss America finalist, was educated in what they describe as a conservative Southern Baptist Christian school. Trent later worked as a flight attendant, jetting across the United States before COVID-19 shut down travel, which is when they then decided to make the leap full-time into cooking. They were recently featured on the Food Network’s Outchef’d, where amateur home cooks are surprised when they learn they’re competing with world-class celebrity chefs.

“As a Black Southerner, there are three things that consistently come to mind when I think of food: community, comfort, and survival,” Trent says. “It’s no secret that the history is deeply complex when it comes to Black Southerners and our relationship to food, most specifically regarding how we cook and what we eat.”

That Southernness can be found all over Trent’s plates, from dishes such as corn pudding and hot brown—an open-faced turkey sandwich invented at the Brown Hotel in Louisville—as well as the distinct drawl with which Trent describes each dish’s story.

Southern hospitality still exists, but it has changed. It is more likely to be expressed in the cocktail party or ‘coffee’ than in the extended visit of yesteryear.
Joe Taylor, Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South: An Informal History

Now a content creator and bourbon steward, Trent curates events focused on food and fellowship for BIPOC and queer communities and shares recipes through the #trentbecookin hashtag on Instagram. That spirit of community was fostered during their childhood, Trent says. Their grandmother used to open her home to the community during holidays, feeding dozens. Trent said they began to understand cooking as “a love language, and food as communal,” much like Black Southerners did—and still do—congregate in church basements, bingo halls, and backyards to feed and be fed.

“Most folks are familiar with, or have heard of Southern hospitality,” Trent adds. “It’s a real thing: from the way we greet each other, to the way we gather, to—and especially in—the foods we eat.”

Community and conviviality

At its core, Southern hospitality is about gathering, togetherness, and community. This was true in the antebellum period when Confederate soldiers were plied with gumbo and champagne by General Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina—who saw it her “duty to keep up appearances,” writes Diane Roberts, a Florida State University professor of English.

Gatherings among poor whites and African Americans during that time, Roberts writes, were certainly less formal, if not less important. They often took place in the context of the church, where people would gather for meals and socializing. Roberts notes that Southern hospitality not only involves food but also the desire to be liked and be seen as congenial.

“The people at the top,” she tells AFAR, referring to white Southern plantation owners, “were very proud of their perfect manners, their graciousness, and their generosity. We will prove to you that we’re civilized.” In its purest definition, Southern hospitality is a willingness to feed people “often whether they want to be fed or not,” Roberts says.

“Food as a means of survival is more than a feeling—it is a fact,” says Trent. “It is a basic human need, as the body literally needs food for survival; eating is a matter of survival; nourishment is a matter of survival.”

“So when I’m cooking for folks, I think of it as a prayer and an act of gratitude,” they continue. “My goal when I’m cooking is to create something that gives life and tastes like love. And I believe this is the goal for many Black Southerners —to create and share sustenance that is comforting and delicious for body and soul.”

Victoria M. Walker is a travel reporter and the founder of the travel lifestyle site and newsletter Travel With Vikkie. She is a special correspondent for AFAR.
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