by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
As new Memphians, we have been blown away by the hospitality of this community. Wikipedia defines Southern Hospitality as “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.” Southern hospitality is evident by how welcoming everyone has been through our transition to Memphis. People have run to greet us and make us feel welcome. We have learned a lot about hospitality and the desire to make everyone feel welcomed and fall in love with this community. We certainly have.
When we first came to visit Memphis, it was shared with us that many Memphians serve their guests buffet style. My biggest worry became not how much food I put on my plate, but what people would say if/when I went up for seconds or even thirds. And yes, when I was the first to get up for a second helping that first Shabbat, I felt all eyes on me. Trying to get a better understanding of our new cultural experiences, I did a bit of research on buffets.
The history is fascinating. Brian Bartels in an article titled The History of the Buffet, an American Institution, explains that the word buffet originated in 12th Century France, meaning a bench or stool and since the 19th Century has come to refer to a meal served from a sideboard. Bartels goes on to say that images from history show “gods and nobles, royalty and the rich, even esteemed biblical figures… sharing momentous occasions, sharing communal dining… (in) what we have come to know as the buffet.” Bartels then explains that the American iteration of a buffet is more like the Swedes use of a smorgasbord, which came to America as part of the New York World’s Fair in 1939. The smorgasbord was an excuse to ease into the main meal, by standing and initiating dinner. I call that a cocktail hour.
It was Herb McDonald who revolutionized the idea of a buffet as he worked as a publicist for the El Rancho Vegas, one of the first hotels on the Las Vegas Strip. At some point in the mid-1940s, McDonald went into the kitchen and brought out some cold cuts, cheese and bread and spread them on the bar for the hungry patrons, thus creating the first “all you can eat buffet.”
There are pros and cons to different methods of dinner service, be it plated with a server, buffet, or, “family style”. Here are a few of the pros and cons as explained on the Grooving Gourmets blog. Buffets allow guest to have a large variety of choices both in offering and sizable amounts. No one runs the risk of being hungry as each guest determines the amount that they would like to eat. Buffets allow guests to walk around and mingle rather than feeling like they must stay in their assigned seat. Family style meals have food that is passed from person to person rather than one being served by another. Family style encourages guests to interact while allow them to sit back and relax at the table. And as one guest at our Shabbat table (which meals are always family style) a couple of weeks ago shared, “no one knew when I took seconds, because I didn’t need to get up from the table.”
Southern Hospitality and feeding guests, get their roots in the Torah, specifically in this week’s parsha, Veyera. Our portion opens with Abraham sitting at the opening of his tent. It is important to note that Abraham lived in the southern part of the land and his tent was always open to guests.
Abraham is recovering from a major surgery (his circumcision) and upon seeing three guests approach, he gets up from his tent to invite these strangers into his home. Like so many of our hosts in Memphis, Abraham ran to greet his guests. Abraham washed their feet and then went to “fetch a morsel of bread so that (they) may nourish (their) heart.” This action is repeated a few verses later, as it says that Abraham “took cream and milk and the calf he prepared and placed them before them.”
Clearly, our community has learned a tremendous amount from Abraham in its open welcoming nature. People in Memphis are quick to open their homes, to invite people in and to share their charm and caring approach. It is one of the things that we love most here.
One of the things that we have learned is that no matter the method, family style or buffet style, people in Memphis, like Abraham, run to host others. They make sure that their guests are taken care of and feel at home. Their homes are open, and their food is delicious. But most importantly, like Abraham, they make sure that they have “nourished (their guests) heart.” I know that our hearts certainly have been.
Wishing you a Shabbat full of family, friends and great food (whether it is on the buffet or not).