ROBERT ST. JOHN: At home with hospitality



I love Mississippi.

Sure, there are other states that might be prettier. It’s hard to top the mountain vistas of North Carolina and Virginia. The redwoods of Northern California are majestic, the craggy cliffs that overlook the Atlantic on the northeast coast have inspired hundreds of writers, and the colorful autumn foliage of New England attracts sightseers from all over the world.

There are states with more beautiful beaches than the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Our neighbors to the immediate east – Alabama and Florida – have sand that is so pristine and white it looks as if it has been poured from a bag of Domino’s sugar.

We are first in obesity and last – or near last – in most every other category the government chooses to measure.

In Mississippi, we live among Loblolly pines, not majestic redwoods. Our “hilly terrain” would be nothing more than an afterthought of a foothill in other states. Our beaches are manmade and morph into wild-grass-meets-saltwater when left to the landscaping of Mother Nature. Down here, a sea of brown pine straw overshadows autumn leaves.

It’s hot – really, really, really hot – and around this time of year the pollen is so thick it billows across the road in thick yellow clouds.

Yet Mississippi is singular. We have something that rises above picturesque landscapes and supersedes all the catchy ad campaigns and shiny public relations brochures. We are more unique than any other state in the most important asset category a state can have. It’s the one thing that can’t be planned by a landscape architect or hawked by an advertising executive. It’s not a tourist attraction or a national landmark. One doesn’t have to travel too far in any one direction to witness it.

It’s our people. At the end of the day, I think “people” – family, friends and relationships – are the most important attribute a place can possess.

I could move to the beautiful mountains of North Carolina and wake up to breathtaking views every morning. But what of the people I have always known? What of the relationships that have been forged? Would I trade them for a nice view and a cooler climate? Never.

We have an uncomfortable history in many aspects. But we have a great history, too. We cannot let the shortcomings in our past define us. One has to move on. The Mississippi of 1856 or 1956 is not the Mississippi of 2014 in no shape, manner or form. We learn from our mistakes. We grow as a collective society. We love one another and we move on to the next chapter.

As a kid I heard the moniker, “The Hospitality State,” and it never resonated. Maybe it was a forest-for-the-trees thing; maybe I just didn’t believe it. What I know today is we are a true hospitality-filled state.

We are warm and welcoming. We are friendly. Not only are we the most convivial, we are the most charitable. We love our neighbor and we love our neighbor’s neighbor. I believe the citizens of Mississippi truly care for one another.

When it comes to the most important asset – people – Mississippi towers over all states. I can visit pretty scenery. I can hop a plane and, within hours, walk under mighty sequoias. I can travel anywhere in the world and make friends. But none of those friendships will have the depth and breadth of the relationships I have made, earned, fostered, and simply “lucked into” here.

So as the pollen begins to swirl and the outdoor temperatures begin to rise, let’s pause for a minute and thank our creator for the blessings we have – none of which are greater than family and friends in Mississippi.

Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.

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