Thanksgiving Day is a big deal generally, but down south it’s truly the time for the southern hostess to shine. The day often has been preceded by weeks of planning the menu and table setting and hopefully a little delegation as well, although that’s hard for some hosts that tend to control, I mean, take on all things by themselves. But alas, if you’ve been invited to a southern home for Thanksgiving or you are hosting the meal, there are at least six traditions that we practice that contribute to a fun family gathering filled with good food, gratitude, friendship, and love.
A Welcoming Table
The characteristic that most people still label over the south is great hospitality. The word means the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, and it truly is a gift. The more homes you’re in the more you can see the intentionality that goes into setting a welcoming table. For example, one welcoming strategy may include making sure that quiet guests are seated near more gregarious diners.
Honoring the Host
Depending on the host, you may or may not know what would be helpful to bring, even if you’ve asked the host what you can contribute. The truth is, some hosts just want things made their way even if that means doing it all themselves. The kind thing to do is to at least ask what would be helpful to the host. If the response is, “Oh honey, just bring yourself.” then you’ll just have to follow the tips for a host gift below.
Gifting The Host
It’s a tradition to not come empty handed to a gathering, especially holidays. This is typically something that’s meant for the host, not necessarily something you’re expecting the host to incorporate into the celebration, like wine for example. Wine is a great host gift, but know that the host may already have the exact beverages planned for the meal, so if the bottle you brought doesn’t get opened, don’t take that as the host not wanting it. She’ll definitely enjoy it once her house has cleared out.
Flowers are also a great host gift. Just make sure they are already in a vase. Even kitchen items like a tea towel or a nice jar of jelly will be appreciated by a thoughtful host. If you’re from out of town bring something that’s local to your area, like nuts, chocolate, molasses, etc. could be an interesting choice.
Setting the Table
Like all people groups, southerners come from a variety of income brackets. Fine China isn’t required to make a table worthy of Thanksgiving Day dinner, but if you have that, by all means, pull it out. Use your best, whatever that might be. The colors of autumn make for a great theme with seasonal produce, like pumpkins, gourds, and corn). And decorative leaves purchased at craft stores can be placed around a table.
Eating The Meal
Southerners are known for fattening cooking, and Thanksgiving Day is no exception. There will be butter and lots of it. First off, whether your turkey is roasted, smoked or fried it needs a brine. Make sure to set out some brown gravy as well!
The turkey will be the main dish on the table, but it’s often the side dishes that play a starring role. Dressing (not stuffing) is made hopefully from cornbread and biscuits that have been saved from the previous week and when made right will crumble nicely with some fresh sage that compliments turkey oh so well.
Cranberry sauce is traditionally out of a can. It’s hard to even type that since I’m not a fan myself, but cranberry sauce has come a long way. Nowadays you may even see both a canned cranberry sauce and a more gourmet variety on the table as this is a divisive preference among southerners.
Sweet potato casserole, in my opinion, is as much of a staple at the table as the turkey. Whether you make it with marshmallows or not, it needs to be on the menu. Other casseroles that could make an appearance: green bean casserole, hash brown casserole, squash casserole, pineapple casserole, and corn pudding. When it comes to rolls, there’s been so much made from scratch already, just pick up some Sister Schubert rolls and brush a little butter over them while they are still warm. Or if you’re hosting, assign this to someone. We welcome all pies to the table on Thanksgiving. Southerners will serve pecan, pumpkin, sweet potato, and we also make peanut butter pie at my house. Bluebell vanilla ice cream is a great accompaniment for any of these desserts.
Finally, I’m sure it goes without saying that sweet tea is also a tradition that every southern home will be serving on Thanksgiving.
The south with its warmer climate still has lots of variabilities when it comes to what the weather might be on Thanksgiving. So, whether you are outside throwing the football or inside sharing stories, remember the point is to count your blessings, many of which are people, those that are in your life today and those that have gone ahead of you.
Laura Beth Peters, one-half of the popular southern culture podcast, Steel Magnolias lives near Nashville, Tennesse. Each week on the Steel Magnolias podcast she and her sister Lainey cover southern topics including cooking, events, traditions, homemaking, history, music, and more.
Grab a seat, a glass of sweet tea and listen in as Laura Beth and her sister, Lainie Stubblefield talk about Thanksgiving.