The art of the Southern porch party

It’s a bit muggy and the air is kind of still. You don’t mind. You’re on the porch, slowly rocking on that wooden two-person swing. The hinges need some oiling, you think, hearing the creak every time you go back and forth, back and forth. That doesn’t matter, either. Not right now. Not when you’re sipping something with bourbon, or maybe only bourbon, and chatting with a few close friends about everything and nothing.

You look up at the sky. The sun. It was high and bright not so long ago. Now it’s setting between the magnolia trees in the yard. What time is it, you ask, daring to look at your watch. What began as an impromptu “come on over” has turned into a three-hour get-together.

Ah, the lore of the porch party! Some Atlanta transplants have yet to experience the Southern porch party thing. Others know of it, but it means little. Still others know it, love it, live it and sure know how to put one on.

Currently lacking a porch, I assumed that type of entertaining had to wait until I had a proper, expansive outdoor space (a classic wrap-around porch, if I had my druthers). No, no, said Southern dames with years of experience holding court on the porch.

“It’s not about the grandeur of the porch, but the quality of the company and conversation,” said food writer Jennifer V. Cole. The former Southern Living editor has had numerous celebs — from chef royalty like Thomas Keller to Southern food ambassadors the Lee Bros. to Grammy-nominated musicians the Brothers Osborne — hang out on her Birmingham porch. She holds such storied porch parties that, this year, Atlanta Food & Wine Festival organizers enlisted her to play host at porch parties in the festival’s tasting tent area.

“Being on the porch is an opportunity to unplug, reconnect and breathe,” Cole said. She considers porch parties a way to “bring back the art of visiting and of conversation.”

One reason why Cole likes to entertain porch-style is because her gatherings are unscripted. “It could be a Tuesday night. It might start with happy hour and last a few hours. It might be 2 in the morning. Weekends, it might be people popping by on Saturday afternoon or Sunday fun day.”

What does one serve at a porch party? Cole has a liquor cabinet stocked with fine whiskey, but she always keeps nonalcoholic beverages on hand — sparkling water, fruit juice, sodas.

Two other seasoned porch party hostesses — Southern food writer-chefs Nathalie Dupree and Virginia Willis — also noted the importance of keeping guests hydrated. Beyond water and water flavored with cucumber, ginger or fruit, Willis makes pitchers of blueberry lemonade. Teetotalers can enjoy that, while guests who want the hard stuff can spike it with vodka.

But, really, don’t fret about beverages. “Beer, wine — people don’t really care about it. What they want is a good time,” Dupree said.

Neither does the food have to be complicated or fussy. Cole might put out noshes like cheese straws and nuts. For more substantial fare, she might run out and grab a bucket of fried chicken. For grazing, Willis serves nibbles like cheese, cured meats, bread and dips. When she needs a more substantial offering, she’ll make a pork or beef tenderloin ahead of time, slice it and serve it chilled. “The whole idea of a porch party and hot food doesn’t go well together,” Willis said.

Just don’t let the guests go hungry, they all warned. Dupree has hosted enough parties to have overheard wives tell their spouses, “This is it. Eat up, because you are not going to get any more.” Sometimes, porch party fare is going to serve as dinner. “Deviled eggs. That’s not going to cut it,” Dupree said.

Foremost among the role of host or hostess, they all agreed, was the importance of making people feel comfortable — introducing guests to one another, grabbing them the first drink and inviting them to help themselves to more, whether it’s a party of five (Cole’s ideal) or 75, like the number Dupree used to welcome on her expansive porch in Ansley Park. Now, she entertains in what she refers to as her “piazza” at her home in Charleston, S.C.

Piazza. Porch. Either works, because “the idea of porching is kind of a state of mind,” Cole said. “You pull up some chairs. You are removed from the distractions of the TV and whatever else is happening.”

Cole recalled that one of her porch guests, star chef Sean Brock, summed up the consequences of a good porch session: “If you sit on the porch long enough, you finally start telling the truth.”