Secret of Potluck Success

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in: Cooking

The other morning, 60 or so people from my small village gathered at the community center to say goodbye to two ranch hands who were bidding farewell to their lifelong trade and moving to Boulder, Colo. They had sold their saddles, given away their boots and spurs, and all that was left were their hats, which they planned to leave for their replacements. They were pretty sure that they wouldn’t need them in a contemporary loft or their Boulder health club.

Of course the event was a potluck; village events always are. There was a plethora of coffee cakes, frittatas, a home-smoked ham and yeasted biscuits. Having just come from Boulder the night before, I contributed a platter of sliced muskmelons from the farmers market there, a taste of their future.

I rather like these local potluck meals. Sometimes they’re what make get-togethers possible at all, given today’s crunch of time and money. Tomorrow, for example, five farmers are coming to my house for dinner — with vegetables. I’ll roast chicken and potatoes from the garden, make a dessert and provide the wine, but we’ll all cook whatever else shows up together. I don’t worry at all about the menu and whether things go together or not. They’ll be fine; I know that we’ll all have a good time

Potlucks for special occasions

We tend to think of potlucks as informal events, but they aren’t always. Last year, for example, a woman wrote me to find out if she could freeze the lasagna she was planning to make for her daughter’s bat mitzvah. The party following the ceremony was not going to be catered, she explained. It was to be a potluck. She sounded nearly breathless, even in print, but determined. This was not the way things were usually done in her temple and there had already been some pressure to have the event catered. She wasn’t going for it.

I told her that yes, she could freeze the lasagna because I knew she’d have a lot to do on Friday and the Saturday of the bat mitzvah. She had been planning to make her own pasta but, as she wrote herself, “That’s all well and good, but there’s a certain point where you have a little sense, please.” I couldn’t have agreed with her more.

But I wondered how it was that this woman came up with the idea of doing a potluck for an occasion that is so commonly catered, so I called her.

“I had a friend in an underground band and when she got married she had a potluck wedding,” she told me. “It was one of the best weddings I’ve been to! She rented a room at a beach club and everyone brought food. It was so much fun. Of course, given that it was a rock ‘n’ roll wedding it had a fun feeling to it anyway, but it was special because it was a tattooed crowd of pot-lucked people. Everyone came knowing that there wasn’t any judging going on about the food, or talk about how good the caterer was or wasn’t and that sort of thing. And everyone knew that they were all part of it. Everyone was bringing a piece of themselves to this wedding.”

‘This has never been done before’

This woman said she couldn’t afford to go the catered route for her daughter, but that she was determined for her daughter’s bat mitzvah party to be special.

“I thought it was impossible at first, but then I remembered my friend’s wedding and thought a potluck was the way to go. I mentioned the idea to another friend and she said, ‘Why not?’ The woman who oversees the temple kitchen was doubtful, though. ‘Oh, this has never been done before,’ she said in her Russian accent. Then she sighed and added, ‘Well, we’ll see how it goes, I suppose.’”

After the bat mitzvah, I called her again to find out how it had gone. She was clearly exhilarated. It had been a big success. “People called and in the end there were more than 30 dishes at the party for 90 people,” my correspondent told me.

One friend who was Indian made rice with lentils. Another poached a salmon, and a third made an egg dish. A fourth friend offered tuna fish because there kids were coming and kids eat a lot of tuna fish. People just cooked what they wanted to cook. Some held off until the last minute for when gaps would become apparent in the menu. And as for friends who didn’t cook, they brought things like crudités, cheese, bread, crackers. “No one missed the catered food,” she said.

“One of my friends said that this is the way a bat mitzvah should be, because it’s about community and she appreciated that she was included. Even my daughter’s friends were saying, ‘Why didn’t my mom think of that?’”

I loved hearing this story, and I especially appreciated the conclusion that my new acquaintance offered at the end of our conversation.

“What’s interesting about a potluck,” she said, “is that you have to give up control and stop thinking that everything has to go perfectly. I’m not going to judge my friends’ taste. I’ve had to tell myself to shut up and say thank you. Now I shut up and say, ‘Great!’”


Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author many books on food and cooking, including “The Greens Cookbook” and “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers Markets.” Her latest book is Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.”

Photo: A home potluck dinner.
Credit: Ed O’Neil

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