Today’s potluckers are as likely to be sitting on inflatable furniture while listening to Alanis Morissette as on metal chairs in the church basement.
A potluck, also called potluck dinner, or covered dish supper, is a gathering of people where each participant is expected to bring a dish of food to be shared among the group.
Steaming fresh bread nestled beside braised salmon, escargot a l’orange and mesculun greens; sushi rolls beneath a tall glass of champagne; chocolate mousse drizzled in raspberry glaze. No, this isn’t a kaleidoscopic flashback from Hunter Thompson’s restaurant acid trip — this is a meal at a potluck, a mosaic of colors, tastes and textures.
Don’t let the name throw you off. The word “potluck” may conjure up images of blue-haired church ladies sharing their family meatloaf recipes. Or, worse yet, suburban Dick and Janes, flaunting Jell-O salads in the new line of Tupperware in their Better Homes & Gardens yards. But once a student has tired out the kegger, the cocktail party and the dinner date, it’s time to try their luck at the potluck.
Students are getting into potlucks because they provide not only quality, un-freeze-dried food, but also occasions for socializing. And what better common thread for a social occasion than food, a conversational topic perfect for just about anyone feeling less comfortable in a social situation?
Those still skeptical might like to try some potluck enhancement strategies.
A good potluck invariably involves good food, but also requires good company and a sense of mystery. Don’t order food from your friends as if you were in a restaurant. Surprises taste better. Who knows when you might end up eating escargot and lime sauce instead of boring old scalloped potatoes? Or maybe somebody has a secret recipe for a tuna casserole so tasty and creamy Martha Stewart would decorate her home in particle board furniture just to get her hands on it.
Not-So-Lucky Potluck Themes
While creativity spices up any potluck, some themes are better left unexplored. Here’re our top ten unlucky potluck picks.
Dishes That Use Prunes
Things Homer Simpson Eats
Vending Machine Delicacies
Things That Come on a Stick
Things Prepared By People Wearing Hairnets and Rubber Gloves
Garlic and Onion Treats
Beer Before Liquor Mixer
Things That Contain Olestra
Things That Come From a Pig
True, you may end up with twelve varieties of Spaghetti-O’s, or you may be graced with a dozen delectable desserts or an amazing food combination. You might also make a momentous discovery thanks to the serendipitous mix. The ice cream cone was invented this way.
Ben Duff, a senior sociology major at Franklin and Marshall, says that the best thing about potlucks is their “eclectic mix and their unpredictability.” Don’t forget that this applies not just to food but to people. That English major you’ve been dying to talk to might share with you their theory about narrative credibility in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” over grits and black-eyed peas. The Religion major/Buddhist-in-training may bring nothing, revealing that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. And the Chemistry major might use desserts to demonstrate the properties of exothermic oxidation in the burning process (chemists are also good to have around if you spill red wine on the carpet — they know the pH sensitive pigments in wine lighten with the addition of something more basic like club soda, baking soda or egg whites).
Theming the potluck can bring a sense of common purpose to the event and can make potlucks into a series. For example, start with ethnic food themes like Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Greek, Southern and Caribbean. From there move to other regional cooking depending on interest, culinary knowledge and skill of your cohorts.
But don’t wear out the foreign restaurant theme. There are plenty more to choose from. Amanda Avis, a who graduated from Carleton College, tried letter themes. “Things that start with C” became a creative cornucopia of comestibles including Corona cookies, carrots, cauliflower, chili, chowder, cherries, curry, calamari, cucumbers, couscous, cake, coconut, Chablis, champagne, cannabis, curly fries and chocolate.
I’ve been to a color theme meal. I must say that it can be a little disturbing to sit down to a monochromatic plate. Try orange to get vegetables, fruit and dairy: carrots, yams, oranges, peaches, mac and cheese, Cheet-os, and OJ.
Other themes include “things you’d want to eat when you got home from a long day of skiing” and foods from your favorite books or movies. Green eggs and ham is an old standby, but you can expand to include raspberry cordial (Anne of Green Gables’ first experience with drunkenness), Turkish Delight (from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), caldron of newt (and the rest of Macbeth’s witches’ brew) and lots of alcohol from just about any Hemingway novel. Also try diner night, breakfast for dinner, aphrodisiacal sampler…take it away.
Besides the food, a good potluck depends on atmosphere. I suggest moving the location from house to house (or dorm to dorm or apartment to apartment, whatever the case may be). This lets different people show off their homes and varies the music, decor and ambiance of the event. So you can finally get a peek at that apartment down the block with a strobe light inside, or the dorm room above you where the newest punk grrls jam. Making the potluck a circulating thing also involves different people as the neighborhood changes.
In fact, a relative of the potluck, the moveable feast, relies solely on this theory of geographic relocation. Originally in the “Book of Common Prayer,” the moveable feast features courses in different locations to which the participants advance sequentially. So, you might start with hors d’oeuvres and an aperitif in a messy, bike-scattered backyard, the move on to eat salad on the front porch of a college house, sip soup in a crowded kitchen, devour the main dish in a dorm lounge and enjoy dessert and digestif back in your own room. The movable feast is good way to make social rounds and sample an assortment of delicacies while simultaneously facilitating the peristaltic process with between-course walks.
A variation on the moveable feast is the progressive. Well known and loved by many students, this is a progression from dorm room to dorm room or apartment to apartment, with a drink (typically alcoholic) at each stop. Although potentially gut-wrenching to the empty stomach, the progressive features the elements of surprise, sharing and visiting that characterize the moveable feast with the added bonus of a tremendous multi-source buzz. You’re also bound to expand your drink repertoire beyond Rolling Rock and gin and tonic.
One student called the progressive a bonding experience: “You can get to know people in a relaxed atmosphere. It’s better than a kegger because there’s more of a sense of community and a homey feeling in each room. Also, everyone’s contributing so there’s a common purpose, not just people stopping in for free beer.”
There’s no need to fear the potluck. Where else is the ratio of free food and drink to effort expended so much in your favor? And where else can you mingle with a new circus of friends and show off your triple layer upside-down cake worked to perfection?
If you liked this article, click here to buy me a beer!