Last Morsel—On Potlucks

Potluck Table

Written By

Sylvia Fagin

Written on

September 01 , 2010

I realize that the potluck is the quintessential Vermont meal: Yankee frugality combined with communal creativity. When my partner and I combined households and invited everyone we knew to celebrate with us, there was no way we were going to cook for 75 people. Friends brought spinach dip, chocolate chip cookies, and strawberries straight from their garden. That was the best kind of potluck—not just because we saved ourselves a whole lot of money and labor, but because everyone brought a little bit of their home to christen ours.

But it was not a meal. It was not dinner. Earlier this year I resolved to host fewer potlucks, and more dinners.

Dinner is a meal to be savored. It is an opportunity to linger. Dinner is a time to come together around one table, one meal, one conversation. The midwinter dinner I hosted last year, when the chicken took forever to cook and we all passed the time by revealing our most embarrassing travel incidents, has become a sacred part of my story canon. When I meet those dinner guests on the street, we share a special bond.

We had dinner together.

By contrast, a potluck often ends up with people talking one-on-one rather than as a whole, feeling isolated in a crowded room. And the food is frequently a mish-mash of offerings never meant to share a plate. “I can’t tell you how many potlucks I’ve been to that were just corn chips, salsa, and cider,” a friend said when I mentioned my potluck manifesto. It was not a compliment.

I’ve been to potlucks where I sampled delicious dishes and begged for the recipe, where through inexplicable magic the ratio of main dishes to salads to desserts worked out perfectly. I’ve also eaten from plenty of tables laden with baguettes and store-bought hummus with nary a vegetable to be found, and left stuffed but not satisfied.

That is not a chance I want to take when I invite friends for dinner. I want a meal that is cohesive, thoughtful, and satisfying. I want the food to provoke and sustain conversation. And I want to create an evening that we’ll all remember—a gift to our friendship, if you will.

I also want it to be affordable, leave some room in my day for something besides cooking, and preserve the communal spirit of a potluck. To that end, I’ve recently served some meals that don’t break the bank, but still involve guests as co-creators: the host provides a centerpiece dish and guests bring the sides and accoutrements. Here are a few:

Roasting a chicken is one of the easiest and most impressive things you can do in the kitchen. Ask each guest to bring their family’s version of salad, roast potatoes, or dessert.

Tacos are a perennial favorite at my house. They’ve got a comfort-food quality, and are especially great for kids who can make theirs exactly the way they want. We serve local ground pork, and Vermont Butter and Cheese crème fraîche instead of sour cream. Have guests bring tortillas, beans, meat, or rice, then have them grate cheese or chop tomatoes. Add a piñata if it’s a birthday!

Around the world, many families eat a version of rice and beans at least once a day. Search for a recipe from a place you dream of visiting. Indian daal might be one such dish—yellow or red lentils simmered with curry spices and served over aromatic basmati rice. Guests can bring flavorful chutneys (“pickle”) like mango, mint, and tamarind; a bunch of bright green cilantro for garnishing; naan bread; steamed vegetables; or sweet rice pudding.

Pizza is another meal that’s easy to personalize. Buy frozen or fresh pizza dough (or make your own from local whole wheat flour) and invite guests to bring their favorite toppings. Award prizes for the most outlandish combinations.

Rolling sushi (technically, makizushi) is a fun skill to practice with friends. You’ll need some special equipment and the willingness to eat your mistakes. If raw fish isn’t your thing, stick to marinated tofu and vegetables like asparagus, avocado, carrots, and mushrooms. Guests can bring pickled ginger, wasabi, and the nori sheets that hold it all together.

When the year started, I wasn’t sure how my no-more-potlucks resolution would pan out. It’s been a wonderful change. Choreographing cohesive meals has nurtured my inner Julia Child and resulted in stronger relationships. Because dinners have been smaller, the conversations have been more intimate. And some people are now closer friends precisely because we had the chance to sit down together around one table, around one conversation, around one special meal—dinner.

About the Author

Sylvia Fagin

Sylvia Fagin

Sylvia Fagin writes about food and agriculture from her home in Montpelier. To make sure that Vic, Marianne and the Bobs were making wine correctly, she recently took a tour of the Calchaquíes Valley winemaking region of northwestern Argentina. She is happy to report that they are right on track. Contact Sylvia via Twitter: @sylviafagin.

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