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.
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.