Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

The end of potluck?

Allergies, over-scheduling, and fear, oh my!

January 7, 2013

Where I live, the potluck is a robust food-entertainment option, but I have begun to wonder how long it will remain so. Having made teasing comments about potlucks in the past (for no good reason, mind you), I feel the ice thinning beneath me as I venture an opinion about this topic. But here goes.

Over the last decade, I have seen communal foodways shift because of allergies, intolerances, meat politics, and general health concerns. Discussions about this topic can get prickly in a hurry. I know, because I have been one of those opinionated asses who beats her chest about how little such issues motivate my eating.

According to Lord Internet, the word “potluck” emerged in the English language in the 16th century. Originally, the term reminded dinner guests to brace themselves when at the mercy of another household. In other words, embedded in the word was the notion that if you’re not cooking for yourself, you need to accept the vagaries of other cooks’ kitchens, be they bland of palate, dirty, or otherwise culinarily challenged.

This original meaning interests me precisely because, as Americans have come to rely more and more heavily on restaurants as food sources, as our health concerns have mounted, and as our acquaintance with cookbooks and ovens has waxed and waned, the role and form of the potluck have changed as well.

In a nutshell (insert peanut-allergy pun here), we seem steadily to be removing the “luck” from potluck. When we accept a communal dining invitation that entails bringing a dish to share, many of us now alert our fellow diners to our preferences and health requirements.

In an article about this issue, the New York Times writer Jessica Bruder observed that “Our appetites are stratified by an ever-widening array of restrictions: gluten free, vegan, sugar free, low fat, low sodium, no carb, no dairy, soyless, meatless, wheatless, macrobiotic, probiotic, antioxidant, sustainable, local and raw.”

These restrictions remind us that eating is as social as it is physical; both the dishes we bring and those we deign to eat define us. Bruder’s article also gives voice to heterodox and thought-provoking views on the subject: Meatopia founder Josh Ozersky declares food-preference culture to reflect “infantilism and narcissism.”

While this salvo may be merely an attention-seeking epithet, it leads me to wonder how the self—other equation should be managed when engaging in potluckery. How much does a single eater have a right to demand of the group?

This newly complicated potluck paradigm has also spawned a jargon. To wit, some cooks are more potlucktically correct than others.

Beside the minefield that is other people’s diets, potluck planners also have to contend with schedules that rarely permit serious home cooking. The department of the university where I teach hosts two potlucks a year. Every year, bags and plastic-showcase containers snuggle up to crockpots and worn plastic platters, those who make hummus making small talk with those who harriedly hit the grocery store before work the day of our communal meal.

I have never heard any nasty comments about the store-bought fare, but as a person who has batted on both sides of this plate, I can say that I feel a sense of disappointment and inadequacy when I am too busy to cook for a potluck.

I believe, moreover, that potlucks have always spurred competition, friendly and otherwise. As in any public forum, we humans manage our hierarchy here as surely as we do in a boardroom or on a basketball court. Having someone swoon over my cranberry muffins makes me walk a teeny bit taller for a day or so.

In socially fragile times, it seems like dietary, structural, and psychological forces could kill this practice — or, more likely, change it until it is no longer the low-key, community-enriching, do-it-yourself venture it was when I was 20.

Maybe meeting at a restaurant everyone likes will be the late 21st-century potluck.

I lament perhaps too often the social fragmentation I see reflected in our emergent eating habits. And I could be flat wrong about the demise of potlucks. They may well persist in a balkanized food landscape.

I surely hope so, because nowhere else can I sample the variety and depth of my acquaintanceship as fully as when I am circling a potluck table, loading my plate with a dab of this and a slab of that. Eating is a form of learning. My brain will languish if this social form dies.

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by Linda Ziedrich on Jan 9, 2013 at 3:20 PM PST

In my community potlucks are as popular as ever. Sometimes cards are provided for identifying dishes and any common allergens they contain. Among my local friends, the host always makes sure that there’s something starchy yet gluten-free, for the fellow who can’t eat wheat.

2. by Martha Wagner on Jan 11, 2013 at 5:59 PM PST

I appreciate this story very much. As someone who needs to avoid gluten (not just wheat, and not just a preference) it’s super helpful to see ingredient cards next to dishes where ingredients are not obvious, or small cards for GF and DF (gluten free, dairy free, etc.). I’m often among 20 to 30 at a potluck, where we circle the table before we serve ourselves and each of us says something about what we brought, describing what’s from our garden, what recipe we picked up on a recent trip, etc. If someone brought a fruit salad from a Walmart deli that person would probably not say so.
Portland OR

3. by anonymous on Jan 12, 2013 at 11:10 AM PST

For medical reasons, my husband and I adopted a vegan diet twelve months ago. I love to cook, and eating at home is fine. We eat just as well as ever, only differently. Potlucks, however, have indeed become a minefield. I’ve learned that I must take both a main dish and a side dish to every potluck because those might be the only foodstuffs we can eat. Physically, it’s not much more work than cooking a meal to eat at home would be, but psychologically it sometimes seems like a burden in that I end up feeling as though we have been invited out for a meal yet I still must supply our own dinner. I realize that this isn’t logical, but there it is. I work around it by reminding myself that the point of getting together is friendship as much or more than food.

4. by anonymous on Jan 14, 2013 at 7:32 AM PST

I am looking forward to our church’s potluck season - every Wednesday evening in Lent we gather for potluck and worship. We look out for one another - there are several celiacs in our congregation, several vegetarians/vegans, and several with onion/garlic allergies. Not every dish is safe for everyone, but there is a variety for all to enjoy (and we label dishes). We also do a stone soup supper right after Thanksgiving; one pot is designated vegan/gluten/onion-free.

My take on potlucks are: make/take something wouldn’t mind having leftovers of, since you probably will. If someone else likes it, that’s a bonus! And don’t judge others’ food choices (store-bought or not, veg-friendly or not, etc.). And have fun getting together, because that’s the whole point.

I’ve also been to a potluck (not at church) where there were 3 different meatloaves, 3 different pans of baked beans, and 1 dessert. That was all. Complete coincidence.

5. by joanmenefee on Jan 14, 2013 at 1:14 PM PST

I love the ingredient ID thought and also think it would be great to standardize such cards, with boxes that can be checked of commonly problematic ingredients. This would be a fun DIY project. But, as you point out, having to talk about the food one is proffering can be anxiety-producing for the less confident among us. That’s why the cards are a less intimidating option that would probably be easy to make part of potluck culture.

I am glad to hear people love potluck as much as I do. It’s like a pop-up food museum.

6. by EvaToad on Jan 25, 2013 at 1:10 PM PST

I love and hate potlucks, for exactly the reasons you describe above. I grew up pescatarian, so potlucks in the 80s and 90s were a minefield for me. I ate a lot of dessert and starch! I am way less picky now, but dislike a lot of common ingredients (sweet/bell peppers, celery, raw cucumbers), so that presents some challenges. Plus, I’m a bit of a food snob! (I would likely decline that WalMart fruit salad..)

But!! I really love potlucks amongst friends. Even people who aren’t cooking enthusiasts often have a few go-to dishes that are fantastic for such occasions, and I love the implied challenge to bring my best whatever (cake, vegetarian main, green side dish). The jumble of flavors is casual and welcoming.

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