One of the best parts of living in the South is that you can delight in the comforts of your porch for most of the year. The outdoor days of any good Southern home is an alluring option for outdoor entertaining nine or even 10 months out of the year, whether it’s a dry summer scorcher or a crisp early winter evening.
The aesthetic benefits of the porch are obvious: space to move and stretch, the invigorating odors of nature and the calming draw of the horizon. “The front porch has a real sense of homeliness,” said Jessica Gibbs, owner of North Carolina-based events business A Shindig Southern Event Planning. “It’s a huge selling point with houses, mainly because Southerners equate the porch as a place of gathering and community.” A porch is an ideal venue for social occasions geared towards a broader network of friends and families: a barbecue, Easter egg hunt or pickup game of football. A smattering of smart decorations (say, birch candle pillars, the classic farmhouse decor or well-worn pillows) can keep your outdoor space at the center of the your guests’ attention — and the action.
But just because you’re blessed with tranquil weather and a spacious porch doesn’t mean you should always use it. For smaller get-togethers — a tighter-knit family celebration, holiday gathering or intimate couples night — the kitchen or living room can set the mood for what Gibbs calls an “intentional” meal in ways that open fields and a distant horizon cannot. Thanksgiving and Christmas, central to renewing family bonds, are better enjoyed within the confines of your dining room mouldings.
“The larger the group, the more fun it is to spread out and be outside, but it feels kind of nice to come and sit around the dining room table for more private gatherings,” said Gibbs. “Now having three kids, we make it a point to sit at the dining room table together in an intentional way. You don’t have distractions. You can really have conversation. When you’re in other settings, like a porch where you’re more spread out, you’re going to let your mind wander a little bit more."
With this in mind, porch hosts should embrace the relative chaos of pavilion entertaining, serving up dishes and drinks designed for casual grazing rather than determined dining. Slow-cooked pulled pork sliders are sure to warm the stomach; the same goes for a hearty sweet potato or butternut squash soup. You can even throw in a smoked mozzarella pasta salad for starch.
For autumn porch gatherings at her Dallas home, television host and Southern lifestyle personality Kimberly Schlegel Whitman swears by a big pot of chili. “My mom has a turkey chili recipe, and we’ll often throw that in a Crock-Pot instead of a formal meal in the dining room,” she said. “Everyone will grab it and go take a seat on the porch and eat there.”
Though the porch lends itself to a different kind of ambience than a parlor or kitchen bar, it doesn’t mean you have to stick to one or the other. For Whitman, it depends on the mood she is trying to create at various points of the evening.“When we’re having families over, we tend to congregate in the kitchen, but we almost always end up on the porch for after-dinner drinks,” said Whitman. “The porch is the perfect wind-down spot. Whether it’s screened-in or an outdoor space, just being able to find a relaxing spot without a television, with a nice view, is the great way to end an evening.”
For an after-dinner cocktail, the usual standbys are accentuated by fresh air. A tasty digestif of Cognac — currently enjoying renewed interest given the South’s brandy revival — is simple enough to produce that aura of warmth against the evening cold. A port or sherry will also produce a similar effect with an added jolt to your digestive system.
But for an unusual twist to the Southern stoop party, consider serving up a Rural Juror before gathering company inside for a meal. Don’t be turned off by its unusual composition: a shaken (never stirred) concoction of tequila, vermouth, lemon juice and celery bitters. This Southern Kitchen original cocktail is sure to rejuvenate your spirit whether savored outside on a warm summer day or a brisk winter evening.
The Rural Juror
- 1 oz. Vermouth
- 1 oz. Green Chartreuse (don't knock it, it's good!)
- 2 oz. Tequila
- Dash of lemon juice
- Dash of celery bitters
Shake well with ice, pour in a highball glass over crushed ice. Garnish with mint, if you're so inclined.