Smile Politely

Get Your Potluck On

Food everywhere is an expression of community relations. —Stephen Gudeman

Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten — and along with it, some of the best company I’ve ever enjoyed while eating — has been at potlucks (or covered-dish suppers, or bring-a-plate dinners). O, the humble potluck!

I came late to the idea of potlucks. I grew up in a family that didn’t entertain much (when we did, my mother made all the food) and rarely went to other people’s houses (including relatives) to eat. My family moved frequently, so putting down roots in any one neighborhood was difficult by itself, but my parents were also quite private people. They preferred to play things close to the vest — friendly to the last, but not too interested in sharing or being shared with.

I first experienced potlucks after we moved to Minnesota in 1981. By this time I was in high school and various organizations I was involved with would have this weird get-together, where attendees were required to bring a homemade “hot dish.” My friends invited me to similar events held at their churches (we were not churchgoers) where the tables groaned under the weight of food created from grandmothers’ recipes.

Already thoroughly confused by my developing relationship with food, I grappled with the social mores involved with eating in this very public setting. What am I supposed to talk about? Do I have to sit at this table with people I don’t know? How much food is too much? Am I supposed to take some of everything? Or barely anything? How about dessert? Because, uh, those desserts look pretty good.

I struggled similarly in college; like many of my classmates, I lived on campus the full four years and rarely cooked at all. We ate together in the dining hall or at local establishments, so my underdeveloped social skills got a good workout. (During my freshman year, I remember being ashamed that I had never learned to ask, “Does anyone need anything?” when getting up from the table, mainly because my mother was always the one to get up.) But no one was cooking; there was no sharing of food past: “You gonna eat that?”

Enter my move to East Central Illinois, where it seemed everyone we met was eager to come over to our place with “something for the grill and a side to share” or to invite us to do the same — strange times for someone who had not really grown up with the concept of many hands making light work, at least not in the kitchen or at the table. It took some getting used to, but now I cannot imagine life without it. Here’s a short list of Potlucks I Have Known and Loved, At Least So Far:

The Block-Party Potluck:


The Dessert Potluck

A B-K family classic: Guests eat dinner before they come, and bring a dessert to share. We’ve had everything from homemade ice cream to tarts to fruit platters to glorious pies. It’s a great one to host if you have friends who have kids.

The [insert food item here] Cook-Off Potluck

My friend K and her husband J host one of these every year. Their guests bring their best chili and cornbread for competition. I bring … dessert.

The “This Meeting Is Happening Over Dinner So Everyone Should Bring Something” Potluck

A group I’m part of meets once a month during traditional dinnertime, so we made the meetings a potluck for about a year, with mixed results. It was shelved when we all started bringing bags of grapes and chips instead of hot meals, mainly because few of us had time to actually make decent food late on a weekday afternoon. Now we just have coffee.

The “Hey, We’re Eating Outside — Wanna Come Over?” Potluck

All summer long.

Potluck meals have their own language and style. There’s nothing like the table chaos of a potluck — the myriad serving dishes and utensils lends a small peek into the owners’ kitchens for the nosy/imaginative. The recipe exchange and/or the stories behind the food’s preparation (“The beets came from my garden,” or “My great-aunt made these ravioli when I was a kid,” or “I just made this up on the fly”) are part of the evening’s entertainment. Good potlucks comport themselves with a casual, comfortable demeanor, and the vigorous conversations that can arise are testament to that.

Redistribution of food (the sharing of the labor in preparing a meal and of the costs associated with doing so — it smacks of socialism, I know!) among a group of neighbors, friends, relatives, colleagues and even among people new to each other is one of the greatest tools of conviviality we currently have at our disposal. This is an especially powerful tool today when: a) so many of us communicate electronically; and b) harder economic times approach.

So, make lasagna (or a cake, or a big salad, or some bread, or whatever) and put out the call. Get your friends over — even just a couple. If you use regular dishes, make sure you redistribute the dishwashing labor. And be ready for your potluck to linger beyond the actual meal — there’ll be a fascinating array of dishes/utensils/tea towels left behind whose owners you’ll have to track down.

Recommended reading about food, eating and culture:

The Taste of America by John L. Hess and Karen Hess

America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA — the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food by Pat Willard (more info here)

The Unprejudiced Palate by Angelo Pellegrini

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