Popular Culture and the Welcome Table

How do we move from last year’s Southern Foodways Symposium topic, Who is Welcome at the Welcome Table to this year’s topic, Food and Popular Culture? At least on the surface, the two topics may seem far apart, and addressing how to relate them might be worth considering not just for members and friends of the Southern Foodways Alliance but for the broad field of Southern Studies.

luscos signageThe concept of the welcome table calls up both a physical space–the table—and the people around it. The ideal is that everybody can and should be welcome to share at the table, and the ideal comes with a challenge to make life around the table more welcoming. For many people I suspect the welcome table seems to reside in the traditions of rural and small-town life and family and community dinners. Certainly it relies on religious language. And the inherent challenge draws on traditions of social division. Many of us like the personal touch and face-to-face scale of Mom and Pop restaurants, diners, and lunch counters. But in southern history, we know that some Moms and Pops, like other business people, practiced racial segregation. We can love the welcome table, but we also know its past and present limitations.

By contrast, popular culture seems distant in origin but almost present everywhere, in neon signs, chain stores and restaurants, ever-present sensations of music and advertising, including online branding. There was a time that southern commentators, as distant in politics as Richard Wright and the Vanderbilt Agrarians, routinely criticized popular culture as distant from “real” culture with deeper satisfactions. If the welcome table seems old, popular culture seems new and dynamic. If the table seems to call up earth tones and face-to-face traditions, popular culture seems to belong to young people and to be full of bright, flashing colors.

The challenge for studying popular culture is to recognize the intersections between the pleasures of dynamic sensations and the reasons for popular culture’s popularity while also understanding the ways Gotmilkpopular culture can be part of corporate manipulation. Some of our language, our pleasure, even our categories of thinking, come from the genius and the cynicism of the Don Drapers and Tom Parkers of the world, who manage to take something interesting and turn it into an image or slogan or sensation that stays with us for a while.

The welcome table and popular culture are not opposites. One offers a welcome. One is popular. Both can hide injustices. One way to connect them is to think about how they both offer comfort and how both come with limits and complications.

Part of what’s interesting is that when some tables are unwelcoming, chain restaurants that celebrate how they treat everyone the same and have the same predictable experience, everywhere, all the time, are in fact far more welcoming. Part of what’s intriguing is that sometimes popular culture can call on images of the welcome table, emphasizing dishes, accents, music styles, clothing, and other memories to connect mass culture with particular experiences associated with a place or group or time period. But then it changes a lot, hurrying to the edge of the next popular fascination, and then the next, and the next, as something new turns to something predictable and mainstream and then to some combination of retro, classic, or forgotten.

The excitement for studying the two is to consider the ways the two concepts intersect, both in theory and in everyday practice. For this year the excitement is especially to consider how they relate to food and how we prepare and eat it, how we sell and buy it, and how we remember and imagine it.

by Ted Ownby