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THE INVITING TABLE

January 1, 2014

In the South good food plays an important role in holiday festivities. My ancestors living in humble cabins in the Tennessee hills found great joy in welcoming kith and kin to the family table. As a high school junior, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I drove my grandfather to visit his Tennessee cousins.  We went unannounced and were treated like royalty in every home.

My great, great grandfather’s cabin still stands near Christiana.  Just down the Shelbyville Pike in Bell Buckle, Myrtis Walls fed us one of the most memorable meals of my life. Fried chicken, country ham, cornbread, and bowls heaped full of vegetables kept us at the table for an hour or more.

As was the time-honored custom in Middle Tennessee even in 1960, the men were seated first. A kinswoman stood behind each man as we ate.  Her task was to be sure there was no empty space on our plate. When a vacancy appeared, a feminine arm reached over our shoulder to plop down another delicious spoonful.

The boulevards at the plantation homes of my forebears in the Lowcountry of South Carolina were lined with pecan trees. Even modest homes had several pecan trees. The house where Clare and I live now has an expansive yard that features five pecan trees, all planted by my grandfather.

Each autumn the nuts were gathered from the ground by young and old alike. In the fall when families sat together in rocking chairs or on joggling boards on the front porch, cracking and picking pecans was a pastime.

Though they were plentiful, pecans were considered a delicacy. They were a popular snack roasted and salted, but they also were included in numerous recipes. My mother put them in apple salad, sweet potato soufflé, and banana bread. Pecan pie is the dessert of choice for any holiday.

Sweet potatoes were a constant. Baked or candied, in casseroles, pies, or breads, yams were a part of holiday meals. During the Great Depression, Pappy raised sweet potatoes to sell and to serve as a staple food for his large family. A Neely family legend is that Mammy, of necessity, would prepare sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal. There just wasn’t much else to serve her family. In the South that was not uncommon even after the Depression. Uncle Buzz steadfastly declared that he would never eat another sweet potato. For the rest of his life, he remained true to his word!

Southerners enjoy adding seafood to holiday fare. Oyster dressing was always a part of Christmas dinner in Clare’s home. We frequently include shrimp or scallops with our Christmas meal. For some families, crab cakes or she-crab soup is a prelude to the main course.

A pleasant blaze in the fireplace added the aroma of wood smoke to every holiday occasion.

At the center of the table we placed a platter with the featured meat. This varied from family to family or from year to year. Favorites were beef tenderloin, wild goose, or a turkey deep-fried in peanut oil. A Christmas ham was traditional for many Southern families. My grandmother would soak a cured ham in apple juice overnight to remove some of the salt. She rubbed it with an orange, studded it with cloves, and basted it with apple cider.

Pappy advised, “Don’t get married and hire a cook. Just marry the cook!”

I certainly heeded that advice. We always enjoy good food, much of it traditional. Most of all we are grateful for what we have to enjoy together.

Clare’s parents and grandparents, as well as my parents and grandparents, knew the fine points of Southern hospitality. Guests were always welcomed at the table. Setting another place was not considered a bother, it was a privilege. Over the years, we have often invited others to share our holiday meals. Usually, we have included those who would otherwise be alone: a friend newly widowed, a person recently divorced, or a student far from home.

Like many Southern families we gathered for a New Year’s Day meal. It was as traditional as watching football bowl games.  Pork chops, black-eyed peas or hoppin’ john, collards or turnip greens, and cornbread was standard fare. Southern lore holds that anyone eating such a meal on January 1 will enjoy prosperity in the year ahead. My dad was there to examine the dinner plates of all those gathered. He doled out a crisp two-dollar bill to anyone who ate their greens and black-eyed peas. It was his way to give us all a jump-start on the anticipated good fortune.

He always said, “If you don’t spend this, you’ll never be broke.”

Now, when Clare and I have our children and grandchildren with us for New Year’s Day, we carry on some of these traditions. We enjoy simply being together. The children encourage me to tell a few stories. We may pull out the banjo or the guitar or gather around the piano to sing.

The blessing is always a part of every meal. It is a simple expression of thanksgiving for the year gone by and for the year ahead. It is the best way to begin a new year.

My prayer for all of you is for a blessed 2014.

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