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Gracious plenty - Rhonda Rich

When my sister arrived for the family get-together, she set down a platter on the kitchen island and turned to me with a fretful look.

"I hope I brought enough turkey." She cast a worried look at the platter.

It looked plenty to me, so I tried to assuage her concern. "I'm sure you have enough. Probably just the right amount."

Her worry had been brought on by the fact that we had extended invitations to whoever we saw that we felt needed a good meal, or just a seat at the table of loving hospitality. "C'mon," one of us would urge. "We'd love to have you. We'll have gracious plenty."

So, the group had grown exponentially, because Southern women just can't resist a crowd of hungry people. After all, the more guests you have (wink), the more compliments to be had.

As it turned out, only half of the turkey was eaten, leaving enough for two dozen more mouths. "See," I said, smiling. "We had gracious plenty. Why were you so worried?"

She shrugged. "It's just that Southern woman thing of wanting to make sure there's enough." She grinned. "Gracious plenty."

In other words: Plenty left over. As my niece once aptly put it, "An empty bowl is horrifying. It means you didn't make enough and someone might not have gotten all he wanted."

But, to be honest, I think we've backed ourselves into a trap that is cutting off some of our famed hospitality. We don't have the time to cook the amount of food that tradition dictates is required by Southern rules, so we host fewer gatherings.

Growing up, my grandmothers and mother covered our tables with so much food there wasn't room for the dinner plates. To this day, Mama still does it. That includes two meats, a vast variety of vegetables - the more starch, the better - gravy, homemade biscuits and two to three desserts. You have to be retired or just plain bored to cook that much.

But Southern women are bound by tradition and a strong sense of the importance of following in the footsteps of our mothers. It can be a terrible burden to carry. It can also be a trap. A dilemma. If you don't have the time or inclination to cook gracious plenty - a famed expression from the Southern woman lexicon - then don't invite anyone at all. That's always been our thinking.

So, we don't. Less and less, we're entertaining in our homes and spreading our personalized hospitality.

I decided to adapt. It's simple: Cook less and entertain more. Sometimes, when I'm cooking for company, Mama will call and ask about the menu. I'll rattle it off and she'll reply, "Is that all you're having? Why, they'll go away hungrier than when they came. I raised you better than that." Pause. "I thought."

Inevitably, she calls back and says, "I'm making a pot of chicken and dumplings. Come get 'em before your company gets there." I refuse and, irritated, she hangs up.

I invited a friend, who lives an hour away, for lunch one Saturday

Kindly, she protested. "I just want to see your house. Why don't I come there, get a tour and then we'll go out for lunch?"

I insisted. "No. It'll be more relaxing here. It won't be anything extravagant, but it'll tide us over until our next meal."

So, I prepared a hearty casserole with ham, rice and peas, a salad loaded with vegetables, homemade biscuits, sweet tea and a fresh made lemon pie. I'll admit it was hard, almost genetically intolerable, to set the table with only four dishes and a pitcher. But I steeled myself and forced my way through it.

"Hmmm," said my friend, the incredible cook. "This is delicious."

And you know what else it was?

It was gracious plenty.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)" and "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."