Southern hospitality is a phrase used in American English to describe the stereotype of residents of the Southern United States as particularly warm, sweet, and welcoming to visitors to their homes, or to the South in general. The term has engendered some controversy due to the connection of related practices to the culture of slavery, and its continued use during periods of both overt and covert racism, and other forms of prejudice.
Southern hospitality "first existed as a narrowly defined body of social practices among the antebellum planters classes". As such, the origin of the practice was intimately tied to slavery. One analysis notes:
African Americans had little place in this initial conceptualization of hospitality beyond the role of servant. Yet, it was the labor and hardships of the enslaved that allowed southern planters to entertain their guests so lavishly and seemingly so effortlessly. Southern hospitality from and for whites was in large part achieved by being inhospitable and inhumane to African Americans.
Over time, however, the concept "developed into a discourse that stretches far beyond the image of the planter class", and the principles of Southern hospitality were eventually adopted by African Americans in the South, and incorporated into materials used to advertise destinations in the South to African American tourists. The concept of Southern hospitality has also been examined as a reflection of the deeply held religious beliefs of the region; the idea that one should be good to strangers is an outgrowth of such Biblical parables as the Good Samaritan. Early travel writer Ernest Hamlin Abbott wrote in 1902, "as religious observances are in the South as naturally included in the hospitality of the home as anything else, so, conversely, hospitality in the South is an integral part of the church services".
Some characteristics of Southern hospitality were described as early as 1835, when Jacob Abbott attributed the poor quality of taverns in the South to the lack of need for them, given the willingness of Southerners to provide for strangers. Abbott writes:
[T]he hospitality of southerners is so profuse, that taverns are but poorly supported. A traveler, with the garb and the manners of a gentleman, finds a welcome at every door. A stranger is riding on horseback through Virginia or Carolina. It is noon. He sees a plantation, surrounded with trees, a little distance from the road. Without hesitation he rides to the door. The gentleman of the house sees his approach and is ready upon the steps.
Abbott further describes how the best stores of the house are at the disposal of visitors. Furthermore, says Abbott:
Conversation flows cheeringly, for the southern gentleman has a particular tact in making a guest happy. After dinner you are urged to pass the afternoon and night, and if you are a gentleman in manners and information, your host will be in reality highly gratified by your so doing.
Such is the character of southern hospitality.
Food figures highly in Southern hospitality, a large component of the idea being the provision of Southern cuisine to visitors. A cake or other delicacy is often brought to the door of a new neighbor as a mechanism of introduction. Many club and church functions include a meal or at least a dessert and beverage. Churches in the South frequently have large commercial style kitchens to accommodate this tradition, but many "fellowship suppers" are "covered dish": everyone attending brings a dish. However, if a newcomer arrives without a dish, he or she will be made to feel welcome and served generously. When a death or serious illness occurs, neighbors, friends, and church members generally bring food to the bereaved family for a period of time. A number of cookbooks promise recipes advancing this concept.
- Anthony Szczesiul, "Re-mapping southern hospitality: discourse, ethics, politics", European Journal of American Culture (2007), Issue 26, p. 127.
- Derek H. Alderman and E. Arnold Modlin Jr., "Southern hospitality and the politics of African American belonging: an analysis of North Carolina tourism brochure photographs", Journal of Cultural Geography (December, 2012).
- Anthony Szczesiul, The Southern Hospitality Myth: Ethics, Politics, Race, and American Memory (2017), p. 216.
- Abbott, Ernest Hamlin (1902). Religious Life in America: A Record of Personal Observation. Outlook Company. p. 111.
- Abbott, Jacob (1835). New England and her Institutions. John Allen. p. 223.
- For example, Winifred Green Cheney, The Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976) ISBN 0-8487-0417-7; Sara Pitzer, Enjoying the Art of Southern Hospitality: Menus, Recipes, and Suggestions for Entertaining Simply and Graciously (1990) ISBN 0-87483-121-0; Lisette Verlander, Susan Murphy, The Cookin' Cajun Cooking School Cookbook (1997) ISBN 0-87905-784-X (stating "I learned to love the tastes and smells of good food, and that true Southern hospitality begins in the kitchen, the soul of a home"); James Villas, The Glory of Southern Cooking (2007) ISBN 0-7645-7601-1 (discussing "the sacred tradition of preparing and serving lots of good food and drink to large numbers of family, friends, and even strangers — better known as Southern hospitality").