By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
I’m on a mission to revive an overlooked practice of Americana: porch sitting. What is that, you say? Well, just what it states: sitting on your porch or stoop. The porch is the threshold of your private space and the outside world. It’s where folks have been visiting and gathering for decades in this country. Put down your cell phones and your tablets. Reach out to your neighbors or a passerby. Flag them down for a sit-down and a chat. Bring out some refreshments, and actually talk to people face-to-face.
Porch sitting is a predominantly summer event but in warmer climates, it can take place most of the year, like here in California. Back in 2006, NPR’s All Things Considered featured a segment on summer porch sitting. Their headline: “Sitting on the Porch: Not a Place But a State of Mind.” In my opinion, that is the essence of parking yourself in a comfy chair, chillin’, while watching the world go by. Add a few folks to join in for conversation, you’re really living the life.
Back in the 1800s, Andrew Jackson Downing, a famous landscaper, envisioned a way to make American houses different from their British predecessors. Adding a porch became an important element of that design. Porches served people well before air conditioning came along. The interiors of their homes were suffocating, so sitting outside was a matter of comfort as much as conviviality. In the 1950s, when suburbs sprang up all over this country, the backyard became the focus of houses’ outdoor space. In urban areas, though, the porch was still the focus.
Now let’s add air conditioning, TV, and computers into the mix. We all seemed to have become shut-ins! I have to say, living in the Detroit suburbs for 35 years really confirmed this observation. Summer would come, and I rarely saw neighbors hanging out in front of their house. Me personally? We had a beautiful deck behind the house overlooking a ravine with lots of trees. No porch sitting for me then. Most outdoor activities happened in our backyards.
Believe it or not, there is a Professional Porch Sitting Union, started in jest in Louisville, Ky. in 1999 when Claude Stephens, an enthusiastic front porch sitter, posted an invitation on the Internet to join. On the Union’s Facebook page, its mission statement: “An oasis of calm in a busy day, the porch invites you to sit a spell until you're ready to take on the world again.”
Back in Ann Arbor or in any college town, having a great porch was a key element of sociability. There were always fellow students passing by with the possibility of “setting a spell” on your porch. Porches were particularly active on football game days. They would be brimming with students, beer, University of Michigan gear, and snacks. The lively mood was elevated well before the game started. After a game, you could tell if the team won or not by what the porch temperament was.
When my husband and I moved to south San Francisco Bay and built a house in 2020, having a grand porch was essential to me. Our house is set back from the road, so our “backyard” space is really in the front. My brother-in-law Ron, who is an architect, designed our porch to be an extension of the house. I live on my porch. I write there, eat some meals, read, do puzzles, grill, entertain, and, of course, porch sit with my neighbors. My husband even does his craft projects out here. It’s fully covered so even if it rains hard (a rare occurrence here in California these days!), we don’t get wet at all. Lucky us, the space is quite large, over 500 square feet, bigger than many Manhattan studio apartments!
Are we porch sitters obligated to serve refreshments? At our house, we have so many dogs around it’s hard for us to put food out without having to guard it with our lives. When I bring newcomers to our porch, I do put food out. In an afternoon “sit,” the beverage will commonly be iced tea or sparkling waters. I like to pair that with shortbreads. They come in so many varieties that there are endless combinations. Today, I’m offering Dried Cherry Orange Shortbread Dipped in White Chocolate. You can change the cherries to dried cranberries or the orange to lemon zest. You can also remove the fruit and add mini chocolate chips and/or nuts.
These cookies are easy to make. The dough can be made in larger quantities and frozen so when you have unexpected guests, you can whip up a batch. Let us know here at The Insider what you choose to serve at your next porch sit. And most importantly, let’s take a little advice from Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.” So, sit on your porch and relax!
Dried Cherry and Orange Shortbread
Yield: 4 dozen cookies
8 oz. butter, room temperature
2/3 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
zest from 1 orange
1/4 tsp. salt
2 c. flour
3/4 c. dried cherries (or dried cranberries)
1 egg white for finish
coarse sugar crystals
2 4 oz. bars of Lindt white chocolate
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Blend together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the vanilla, orange zest, and salt. Beat in the flour. Stir only until the dough begins to come together. Add the cherries.
Using your hands, gather the dough together. Spray an 8” x 5” loaf pan with pan release. Line with a large piece of cling wrap. Pack the dough into the pan. Smooth out the top. Wrap in cling film. refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight. It can also be frozen and used at another time.
Preheat oven to 350°. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Unwrap the dough. Using a sharp, thin-bladed knife, trim the loaf so that the sides are squared off. Beginning at the short end, slice the loaf into 1/4” slices. Cut the slices in half crosswise. Place them on the cookie sheets with a 1/2” space between cookies. Brush the tops with egg white. Sprinkle with coarse sugar.
Bake for 12-14 minutes, until set but not browned. Cool completely.
Break up the white chocolate into the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Stir with a fork. When melted, blend in the oil. Continue stirring until melted and smooth.
Dip the short ends of each cookie into the white chocolate. Set the cookies back on the baking sheet. Refrigerate the cookies until the white chocolate is set, about 1 hour. Serve at room temperature.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.