Celebrating the holiday Dessert Porch
Jalousie windows, bounty of baked goods transform a house into a home.
Author Clorisa Phillips (far right) welcomes guests Cooper Saine (far left), Sarah Rizk and Alec Horniman to her imitation Dessert Porch in December 2022. For Phillips, the dessert porch means her parents are still with her in the traditions they imparted.


For the first 11 years of my life, my family lived in 10 residences — “quarters” as the Army called them. We mostly stayed a year or two, sometimes less when we took temporary quarters before occupying “permanent” quarters, which of course they weren’t.

Our quarters were predominantly stone or brick structures built during WWI or WWII, some with sunrooms positioned off a living room or bedroom to catch warm rays. They were very different from homes in South Georgia where my parents were from — Metter for my mother, Soperton for my father. There, older homes were wood with back porches off the kitchens.

When my father retired after 30 years in the Army, he started a second career and we moved to a Virginia town where the quarters in which you lived were called houses.

Almost immediately in the house we purchased, my father built an enclosed back porch with screened jalousie windows. (Everyone knows that front porches are covered but not enclosed.) My mother decorated the porch with my father’s houseplants and a black wrought-iron table with six cushioned side chairs and a matching loveseat. The porch sheltered us during meals in warmer months. The open jalousies allowed the breeze in, even when it rained, and the screens deflected bugs.

The porch was right off the kitchen so my mother wasn’t sequestered alone while cooking. Wearing one of her many skirt aprons patterned with fruit or flowers, her hair always styled, makeup done and nails painted even when rolling out pie crust, she was not only our meal preparer but also our baker and confectioner.

Like most households with deep Southern roots, we had homemade desserts and sweets every day at lunch and dinner (or on Sundays, at dinner and supper). There were pale, vanilla pound cakes with gently cracked crusts; Bundt-pan coffee cakes topped  with crumbled cinnamon and nuts; hot blueberry muffins at breakfast or after school; soft oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies; pecan pies, the nuts shipped in burlap sacks from Georgia relatives, served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream; light angel food cakes from tall tube pans, with white icing and our names in candy letters for birthdays. Even lowly marshmallow Rice Krispies treats had their sticky day.

Once the leaves fell from the trees and colder temperatures set in, the parade of holiday desserts commenced. On any day between mid-November and mid-January, my mother’s offerings might include a white, three-layer cake with coconut icing or her famous (and fabulous) caramel icing; golden-brown pumpkin pies in flaky scratch-made crusts; lemon squares with graham-cracker bottoms, topped with confectioner’s sugar; or the pièce de résistance: rich, velvety chocolate fudge.

Besides being scrumptious — and well, chocolate — the fudge also had my father’s hand in it; he used a red-topped manual grinder to pulverize walnuts or pecans he opened with his hand-held nutcracker.

The only holiday dessert that wasn’t homemade was the dense rectangle of Claxton’s fruitcake stuffed with candied fruit dyed bright green and red. It was shipped from Georgia relatives.

As the inventory of sweets grew, my mother would display them on the porch table, closed off from the heat of the house. This allowed access to the desserts without crowding the kitchen and prolonged their freshness. Then, while wearing a holiday skirt apron with Santa and a reindeer on it over a red or black worsted wool skirt and coordinating lambs wool turtleneck, she would decorate the table with poinsettias and set out plates, utensils and festive paper napkins. The Dessert Porch was born.

The Dessert Porch conjured memories of the only other “home place” I had ever known growing up — the farm where my father was raised. In my grandmother’s unairconditioned farmhouse, layer cakes awaiting caramel or chocolate icing had to cool somewhere when her small refrigerator was already chock full. The farm had always figured largely in our lives due to our transient Army existence and also because my mother, orphaned at age 15, had no home place.

Once she had a real home of her own, the holiday season meant my mother could finally welcome a parade of visitors, both planned and drop-in: school friends, my father’s co-workers, members of my mother’s clubs, neighbors and others. And they all contributed to the festivities. One of my girlfriends brought holiday cookies shaped like stars, trees and stockings topped with colored sugar, the one thing my mother didn’t make. My sister’s boyfriend (now husband) and his brothers wore Santa hats. One Christmas, a member of my father’s staff and his wife showed up wearing Mr. and Mrs. Claus costumes. Guests visited the Dessert Porch and ate as much as they wished, my girlfriends squealing at the sight of pies and cakes and lemon bars; my dad’s friends joking they’d try to make it through “one of everything” — although everyone always avoided the fruitcake.

“Does your mother always make multiple desserts?” asked my Boston-born future husband the first time he visited at Christmas. By that point in my life I knew enough not to say, “Why, doesn’t everybody?”

Eventually a new generation got to experience my mother’s Dessert Porch, beginning with my husband’s teenage daughter. “Wow, look at the desserts,” she said before trying them all, except the fruitcake.

My sister’s son and my own daughter followed. Disappointed when a friend’s home didn’t feature a Dessert Porch, they were always polite and didn’t mention it.

Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” For my parents, the enclosed back porch with jalousied windows was a signifier of “home” — the thing that had been missing in Army quarters.

Announcing “this is who we are,” the porch was furnished with memories and represented their Southern identity.

For my sister and me, the annual emergence of the holiday Dessert Porch and the constancy of my mother’s desserts created a rich, comforting memory bank of feasting on Southern delicacies, surrounded by family and friends in a happy and secure home — something my mother lost as a young teen. As Rick Bragg writes in “My Southern Journey”: “I was not just eating food. I was consuming culture.”

I see now that the Dessert Porch fed both our bodies and our souls. My parents’ pride in the bounty of desserts was palpable. I felt the same pride when, at 24 and living in a tiny apartment, I astonished my friends with a spread of Christmas desserts on my parents’ old Formica table covered with a festive cloth. My friends didn’t eat the fruitcake then either. (“What are those bright red and green things in it?”) As my mother entered her 80s and her health declined, she introduced store-bought desserts into the mix. Then, she offered fewer desserts. Finally, there were none.

My mother and father are deceased now. My house doesn’t have a back porch, although I might build one someday. I’ve never made a cake; I was too consumed by my career to learn how. I have baked cookies, though, and pecan pies with pre-made crusts a few times. My efforts don’t come close to my mother’s gift for baking, but I’ve begun to re-create the Dessert Porch for guests during the holidays. I place store-bought desserts on our dining table that faces the patio, and I’m struck by the things that haven’t changed. My parents are still with me in the traditions they imparted. And guests still won’t eat the fruitcake.

Clorisa Phillips is an essayist, retired from a career in higher education.

She explores family stories, aiming to reveal overlooked or commonly unknown aspects of life. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Halfway Down the Stairs, Next Tribe and other journals. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.