by Mary E. Miller
photographs by Lissa Gotwals
The storming of the French Bastille was a hot affair of high ideals, fueled by the restless hungering of many souls. Not, in other words, unlike the Porch Light French Garden Party – except that here in Raleigh 223 years later, only a pig was executed, tomatoes quartered, and sugar played the role of resistance, requiring seven assaults to conquer hand-made macaroons. Alors, for the three women chefs and friends who masterminded this Bastille Day feast, it was an historic, triumphant night that advanced their personal revolution to create a culinary republic devoted to local food.
Kelly Burton, Ollie Inglis and Genevieve Gerngross are the light, heat, brains and brawn of Porch Light, a community supper club they began in January. Their goal is to explore foods while meeting an unusual variety of people who are like-minded in spirit. Staging themed meals of seasonal local produce every six weeks, they have found a delicious way to spend precious free time and connect to others.
“It’s not exactly underground, but it is word of mouth,” says Burton, who moved to Raleigh from Albuquerque last year to be an instructor in the Natural Chef program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. In the classroom, she met Inglis and Gerngross, two students eager to further pursue and apply their techniques. After December’s graduation, the women decided to launch a supper club of sorts. They brainstormed for names. Porch Light felt right.
“We put the event online, send out emails, let people reserve a spot. When it fills up, there’s no more space. If you don’t make the list this time, you move to the waiting list, where we start for the next event. There are a some people who have been to several, but we always have a lot of newcomers. That’s what keeps it interesting.”
Rules are evolving, but simple: sign up, consider paying $25 to offset cost of food, BYOB. Enjoy and spread the word. Dinners serve between 25 and 60 people, depending on the venue.
Linen frocks and seersucker jackets
Supper clubs, underground and otherwise, predate the French Revolution, remain particularly popular in the American South, and have been traced to many different points on the planet. Yet they can be insular, driven by social ambition or the pursuit of exotic trend.
Not this one. In an old house on a tree-lined street off Glenwood Avenue, bare-shouldered women in linen party frocks and lacquered toenails mingle with handsome sweaty men in rumpled gingham shirts and seersucker jackets. Twenties-era jazz tunes embrace the flirty twilight breeze. Ball canning jars hold rosemary-infused gin cocktails; iced buckets on the back deck present bouquets of open bottles of Bordeaux, Sancerre, and Pouilly-Fuisse. Guests, whose age range from 4-month-old girl baby Riley to Ollie’s great-aunt Rebecca, resplendent in her eighth decade, mingle comfortably without the aid of name tags. Conversations do not begin with “What do you do?” The food stars.
With a decidedly French twist on the bounty of the garden, the menu includes pork sausages that were just recently a Berkshire hog owned by a friend of Inglis’ father — “a pig I had met,” as she puts it. All vegetables for the salads, the galettes, and the grilled ratatouille came from Tim’s Garden, the organic farm off Tryon Road where Inglis works as manager.
Early in the night, Burton’s white handkerchief linen tunic appears pristine, although she is nearly soaked through with sweat. With a laugh she turns the heritage pork sausages and rues her decision to volunteer for grill duty.
Inglis, standing in the kitchen wearing a vintage linen nightshirt she picked up years ago in France, dishes out roasted farm potato salad dressed in stone ground mustard and cornichons. She nestles the platter between the grilled ratatouille with basil garlic puree and the carrots she has picked, sliced and pickled. From the stove, Gerngross pulls a crisp buckwheat galette filled with creamy herbed ricotta and summer squash. For three hours, these women never stop moving, refilling dishes and pitchers, accepting compliments, answering questions about what to do with extra zucchini, how to prepare the cubed chilled beets, divining the secrets of summer berry pudding, watching the macaroons get devoured.
By the end of the night, they look exhausted and elated, as if they are the ones who have been served a delicious, languorous and nourishing meal.
A love for cooking; cooking for love
The impetus behind the creation of Porch Light is as simple as the need to recognize faces at the grocery store, to learn a new place not by the map of roads, but by what grows and flourishes in the fields. And it is as complex as the need to defeat the bittersweet loneliness that comes when planned paths prove distasteful and are abandoned. It’s about summoning the courage to go with the gut; about the deep-seated human need to communicate life’s meaning through food.
Burton, who lives in Raleigh, spent eight years in New Mexico running two restaurants with her sister, chef Jennifer James. She wanted to return to teaching. But in this new place, she yearned for a way to meet more people. Gerngross moved from New York city to earn the natural chef certificate. She, too, wanted to make friends in her new home.
Knowing more people wasn’t so much Inglis’ issue. “She’s related to like 3/4 of North Carolinians,” Burton jokes. Inglis’ extended family pepper every event and always stay around to help wash dishes. But she is the kind of person who makes lots of friends and keeps them.
None of these chefs began their adult lives inclined toward the culinary, although a passion for food, for each, took hold in childhood. Burton studied economics, Gerngross, finance, and Inglis, environmental studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. At one point or another, each woman turned and faced the stove.
But love for cooking is not the same as cooking for love. For them, Porch Light entwines the two.
Two nights before their dinner, they sit together at Ollie’s house in the Kirby neighborhood off Western Boulevard sipping ginger tea. In the throes of party prep, they sag a bit. Each works full-time in another job. Gerngross is director of sourcing for Campbell Wellness, a plant-based food production start-up based in Mebane. They estimate that the week before each meal requires 40 additional hours of prep work. They do it all: plan the menu, source the food, cook the food, arrange the decor, set up, break down.
Their first event, “Worship the Liver,” featured pâtés and handmade seafood sausages. “We even made the cheese and crackers,” Gerngross said. Other nights included Mexican (roasted North Carolina goat sliders, adobo roasted North Carolina whole fish), afro-disiacs (Southern soul-food like chicken and waffles, grilled oysters, peanut soup, collard-stuffed cornbread), and an homage to Italy that featured a ricotta-making lesson and homemade pasta. There are many more ideas on the horizon.
At the moment, Inglis is confident. The first batch of macaroons she tried neared perfection. Burton frets over the summer pudding. Gerngross sighs at the thought of all that must happen before the party.
So do those who have dined by Porch Light.
Friendships made; friendships revived
A day later in another kitchen, home owner and French Garden Party host Tracy Davis describes the kind of crowd she expects. A lawyer, writer, mother of three, and sister to the man whom Ollie dates, Davis has been an avid fan since “Worship the Liver.”
“This is so not about a pretentious dinner party, or even about Raleigh’s cool kid crowd getting together,” she said. “The people are so different…so open.” She chews over the thought. “Well…they are awake.”
Over Porch Light platters, friendships have been born, and others long dormant have revived. During the last event at Tim’s Garden, two couples who had not seen each other in 20 years gleefully reconnected. A meeting at another event led Genevieve Gerngross’s fiancé to the marketing job he now holds. With each meal, the connections grow and are passed on, like a sourdough starter that is constantly refreshed.
All meals, eventually, come to an end. Memorable are the sweet ones.
Most guests have gone. Two or three newcomers have already offered to host a future dinner. The chefs pack leftover food, continued on page 90
nibble at desserts and wash it down with rosé.
“The macaroons are awesome, Ollie,” someone says.
Inglis winces with a happy shrug, admits her own private war and victory. “It took seven batches to get them right,” she says. Four worked, three she had to pitch.“Seven!” Burton and Gerngross murmur with a mixture of empathy and respect. Not everyone would go that far to master a skill, or simply give of themselves, especially for people they don’t know. Really, it’s revolutionary.
For information about Porch Light’s upcoming events, go to www.porchlightraleigh.blogspot.com. And for information on Tim’s Garden on Dover Farm Road in Raleigh, go to www.facebook.com\timsgarden.