Is It Rude To Return a Dish Empty? Southerners Know the Answer

An age-old etiquette debate.

Chicken-Spaghetti Casserole (80s)
Photo: Southern Living

It's no secret that Southerners take food quite seriously, especially when it comes to holidays, parties, potlucks, and every casserole in between. There are plenty of subtle social guidelines surrounding the Southern custom of bringing a covered dish to someone's home, including general potluck manners and the etiquette of party leftovers. No, the fork doesn't stop at planning who is bringing what recipe and which person hosts. The aftermath is just as important to us: helping clean, not overstaying, and—of course—always returning a dish back to the owner.

That brings us to an age-old debate between Southerners: What is the proper way to return a dish? Is it rude to return a dish empty?

More traditional Southerners will swear that you can never, ever, ever return a casserole dish, cookie tin, or food storage container back to its owner empty. Lest Emily Post come back to haunt you forever. Many times, a covered dish or container of food is given in times of hardship, recovery, or as an addition to a potluck hosted at someone else's house. It could be for a person going through a crisis in the family, for a new mother, or even just as a random act of kindness. Customarily, you are to return it filled with something that acts as a sort of edible thank you note.

Some say that this tradition is outdated or too much hassle. A gift should not require anything in return, right? Technically, that's true, but Southerners are nothing if not overly-courteous. Returning a dish empty—but clean!—with a thank you note at the very least is widely accepted today and should cover your bases (especially for those who are going through a difficult or busy time), but it's still just as agreeable to return it with a small food gift instead if preferred. The most crucial thing is to make sure you're acknowledging your appreciation in some way.

At the end of the day, no one should expect a favor in return, since that would corrupt the meaning of favor altogether; but the practice does promote a lesson in being kind. Next time you're returning a casserole dish or Tupperware container, consider filling it with something akin to a Southern "happy," which is also known as a "surcie" to some. Something small and special that says "thinking of you." It can be cookies, vegetables from your garden, or a batch of your mother's famous cheese straws. It's not about money spent, just the thought put in.

Being nice and getting treats? Now, that's an etiquette rule we can keep around.

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