The years after 1865 saw the family as the core of Southern society and “within its bounds everything worthwhile took place.” Even in the early twentieth century Southerners working in exile up North imported corn meal and cured hams, and missed the North Carolina home where “Aunt Nancy still measures by hand and taste,” and where “the art of cooking famous old dishes lives on.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Endlessly Contemplating the Past on the Front Porch
“The governing families [of the South] . . . possessed modesty and good breeding in ample measure; much informal geniality without familiarity; a marked social distinction that was neither deliberate nor self-conscious. Indeed, the best families in the South were the most delightful segment of the American elite.
Southern charm reached its culmination in the Southern lady, a creature who, like her plantation grandmother, could be feminine and decorative without sacrificing any privileges except the masculine prerogative to hold public office. Count Hermann Keyserling in 1929 was impressed by “that lovely type of woman called “The Southern Girl,” who, in his opinion, possessed the subtle virtues of the French lady.
What at times appeared to be ignorance, vanity or hypocrisy, frequently turned out to be the innate politeness of the Southerner who sought to put others at ease.
To a greater degree than other Americans, Southerners practiced what may be regarded as the essence of good manners: the idea that the outward form of inherited or imposed ideals should be maintained regardless of what went on behind the scenes. Southern ideals were more extensive and inflexible than those prevailing elsewhere in America. To the rigid code of plantation days was added, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the repressions of puritanism imposed by the Protestant clergy, who demanded that the fiddle be silenced and strong drink eschewed “on pain of ruin in this world and damnation in the next.”
Although Southerners were among the hardest drinkers in America, one reason they voted for Al Smith in 1928 was because he openly defended drinking. Many critics called this attitude hypocrisy, even deceit; the Southerners, however, insisted upon making the distinction between hedonistic tendencies and long-established ideals. If such evasiveness did not create a perfect code of morals, at least it helped to repress the indecent.
The home in the twentieth century remained the core of a social conservatism fundamentally Southern, still harboring “the tenacious clan loyalty that was so mighty a cohesive force in colonial society.” A living symbol of the prevailing domestic stability was the front porch where, in the leisure of the rocking chair, the Southerner endlessly contemplated the past. Here nothing important had happened since the Civil War, except that the screen of trees and banisters had grown more protective.
The most obvious indication of the tenacity of home life was the survival of the Southern style of cooking. Assaults upon it came from the outside, with scientists claiming that monotony and lack of balance in the eating habits of millions resulted in such diseases as pellagra.
National advertising imposed Northern food products upon those Southerners who would heed. Federal subsidies after 1914 enabled home economics to carry the new science of nutrition into Southern communities and schools. Yet no revolution in diet took place. Possibly, the . . . teachers overstepped . . . when they sought to introduce the culinary customs of Battle Creek and Boston. Their attempted revolution failed for the same reason as that of the Yankee schoolma’ams during Reconstruction.”
(The South Old and New, A History 1820-1947, Francis Butler Simkins, Alfred A. Knopf, excerpts pp. 292-295)