Brian Jacobson
Deep-Fried Romantic

The end of potluck dinner as we know it

By - Jul 30th, 2010 04:00 am

I’m trying very hard not to get angry now. Right now, my meter is set at disappointed mixed with a little nostalgia and wonder.

This is because today I participated in another potluck meal situation in which most people that bothered (many cried, “oh darn I forgot” before digging in) only brought a bag of chips or box of cookies.

It was for my office — ideally not the best place for gourmand participation — that I made a decadent recipe for baked macaroni and cheese which I learned to make back in 1999. I used my good panko breadcrumbs and garlic for a topper, a sharp white cheddar cheese with heavy cream and ground mustard.

The typical potluck, forever lost? Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

There have been other cases I’ve observed at summer parties in which guests are asked to bring a dish to pass and arrive either empty-handed or with paltry offerings. A few still do make actual food from scratch, but for most others it just seems like they were missing the point.

In a recent  interview on American Public Media, writer Barbara Kingsolver mentions that while the feminist movement worked to liberate women from the kitchen, it also gave the false impression that slaving over a stove was being a slave to something. In the end, we forgot how to cook and provide for others in our community.

Before everyone gets defensive (“hey, I know how to cook you jerk”), I don’t mean that we’ve lost the ability to follow a recipe or know different food tastes as made by our own creative hands. Maybe you make a mean chili, or a perfect peach pie, or have just learned to make a tasty stir-fry with tofu and veggies.

Instead, what I mean is that the consistency of making dinner four or five days a week has vanished. Much of our food is fast, it is catered, it is pre-packaged, and it is meant to be eaten by only a few people at a time.

Taking a prepared flash-frozen meal out and microwaving it as per instruction doesn’t count as cooking. Also, having an appreciation for the slow food movement and yet sampling it at a restaurant instead of from your own garden or pantry does NOT count either.

Modern pre-packaged food found in the grocery, combined with that store’s locally created elements such as four muffins in a plastic container all goes toward a kind of separation between consuming a foodstuff and having an appreciation for a meal or the person who prepared it. Much of the flavor is lost.

Back in 1978, I remember attending a potluck dinner in my hometown parish hall. Stretched out on four tables was casserole after casserole, meats and potatoes, green beans and Jell-O molds. If 200 people showed up, 100 of those people made enough for eight people each.

It was much more anonymous and fulfilling than what you see today, in which someone who prepares a recipe they’ve read are just glad it turned out to be edible and points it out to the guests.

The corningware dish creations here were often made  by people in my current demographic. The smells weren’t foreign (no curry in Southeastern Wisconsin farm communities back then) or greatly varied, but instead savory and sedating. It was beautiful in its simplicity and taste without sacrifice to wholesomeness or flavor.

I’ll continue to bring a dish to pass at parties, and obey the unwritten etiquette expected of providers when “Potluck!” is called. I will not call attention to my offering and I will make enough for everybody. I don’t expect anyone to follow me.

0 thoughts on “Deep-Fried Romantic: The end of potluck dinner as we know it”

  1. Anonymous says:

    just as I was eating my cold mac&cheese from Koppa’s Deli, along comes your fabulous potluck piece. let me just clarify the “anonymous” in your memories of genuine potluck soirees. in the small Iowa town I grew up in, everyone around knew who baked the Devil’s Food cake, the Sara’s Peach Pie, the Mary’s Chicken casserole. it’s not that things were labeled at Potluck events, it’s that various ladies in town were known for their specialities and proud of it. bless your pea-picking heart Brian (Brian’s Pea-Picking cold salad) for bringing us this and ain’t it da truth?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Brian, Don’t fret. As long as there are Lutherans in the upper Midwest potlucks will live on. It’s a sacramental thing for us.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “Instead, what I mean is that the consistency of making dinner four or five days a week has vanished.”

    We cook dinner from scratch at least five or six nights a week. More people need to learn how satisfying it is to discover cooking new recipes, both foreign and domestic, on a routine basis!

  4. Anonymous says:

    We are a Picnic/Potluck Group that has been meeting EVERY Monday for the last 22 years.
    We meet in Lake Park in the summer and in each others homes in the colder months. Our group of about 20 has changed and evolved thru the years. Usually 12- 14 show up and everything is strictly voluntary.

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