At the relatively early age of 33, Willie Morris wrote a seminal memoir of growing up in the South, suggesting with his title, North Towards Home, that only in leaving the South could he fully understand its cruelty and beauty. Like Morris, I spent my 20s and 30s in New York City, and it was there that I developed a more complicated appreciation, and a deeper love, for the land of my birth.
I was lucky during those years to be surrounded by other Southerners who felt the push and pull of home. My wife, Keith, had grown up in the Mississippi Delta, and our close friend, the writer Julia Reed, another Mississippian, ran a Southern salon of sorts out of her grand apartment on East 78th Street. Frequent guests at Julia’s dinners included André Leon Talley, Vogue editor-at-large and a native of North Carolina; John Huey, the Atlanta-born editor at Time Inc.; and Helen Bransford, the Nashville-born jeweler married, at the time, to writer Jay McInerney.
Every Christmas, Keith and I would host a holiday “cocktail supper,” reminiscent of those multigenerational Christmas Eve parties we both remembered growing up, the ones where children of all ages were dressed in pretty smocked frocks and the grown-ups drank too much milk punch. Our parties in New York were different, though, than the ones of our childhoods. We had been raised in a different South from our parents, and the mix of guests at our holiday-decked Upper East Side apartment was more New South than Old. One thing that remained unchanged from the parties of our childhood—much-remarked-upon by our Northern friends—was the menu. And the bustling and ineffable hospitality that seemed then, and still does, uniquely Southern.
Keith's Playbook for Extravagant Small Affairs
Our Nashville home, a1930s Georgian Revival we renovated with architect Ridley Wills and interior de-signers Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman
An excuse to ditch the sweatpants and pajamas and gather with a handful of our closest friends. In other words, a celebration, just because
Weeknight cocktail. If there was ever a time for over-the-top, it’s this time.
I remember sharing a laugh at one of those parties with our friend Darren Walker, a native of Texas and the first Black man to run the Ford Foundation. A Massachusetts-born journalist friend was extolling the virtues of my wife’s sausage balls, which were generously being passed on silver trays. Darren and I shared a conspiratorial nod. The deliciousness of the sausage balls—we both knew because we’d witnessed them being made—was achieved through some strange alchemy of Jimmy Dean pork sausage, a dash of Bisquick biscuit mix, and a block of grocery store Cheddar cheese. Hardly the stuff of nouvelle cuisine.
Nearly 10 years ago, Keith and I and our three children moved home to Tennessee after spending 17 years in New York. When our friends there asked us why we decided to pick up and leave a lovely life in the city, our standard response was: “dogs and trees.”But there was something else too. After so many years away, we longed to live at a different pace, with easy access to the natural world and room to host friends for dinner at the kitchen table. We renovated a crumbling, old 1930s Georgian Revival house with the help of our friends at Brockschmidt & Coleman (the New York design firm run by two Southerners, who now have their own outpost in New Orleans) and Ridley Wills, the brilliant Nashville architect.
We still host a big holiday shindig, but more often than not, our entertaining takes a more spontaneous form. With plenty of room at our kitchen table or in the boxwood garden off my study, Keith indulges in what I call her “invitaholic” tendencies, hosting dinners to mark any occasion she can reasonably argue calls for celebration. The publication of new books or art exhibits, I get, but when Keith insisted on hiring live entertainment for the birthday party of her four good friends, all born in September, it seemed a beat too far. “It’s a Virgo birthday party,” she argued. It never ends.
Even COVID-19 has been no deterrent to Keith’s need to gather friends. Weary of wearing pajama bottoms and spending hours staring into Zoom, she recently schemed to host a decadent winter supper to which she invited six close friends for Champagne and caviar, followed by a beautiful dinner featuring a menu inspired by our beloved friend Julia Reed, who died last August, but whose spirit infuses any party at our house.
For this small gathering, it seemed a little odd to me that Keith insisted on cocktail attire. Didn’t she think that might be taking it too far on a Thursday evening, I asked. “It helps beat the winter quarantine blues,” she said in a tone that suggested I lacked vision.
Cheese Dreams from Julia Reed’s South cookbook and bacon-
wrapped watermelon pickles from Reed’s But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!
Smoked salmon from Zabar’s in New York (a Meacham celebratory tradition), homemade blini, and crème fraîche
Boeuf Bourguignon, which Keith loves in the winter served with garlic-cheese grits soufflé and Bibb lettuce salad from Julia Reed's New Orleans cookbook
Meyer lemon tart with raspberry sauce, plus Carriage House Cookie's shortbread with pressed edible flowers
I tease Keith relentlessly about her deep-rooted need to entertain, and I feign annoyance because, well, it’s fun. But I have long benefited from her instinct for convening. As the Greeks taught us, gathering around a table with good food and drink is more than a means of sustenance. It is an emblem of hospitality, and hospitality is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible virtues of grace, generosity, even love. I know I’m biased, but I happen to believe Southern hospitality is right up there with the Greeks.
Jon Meacham is a renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. His latest book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, an intimate portrait of the Civil Rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman, is available wherever books are sold.
Produced by Rachael Burrow.
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