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Nostalgia February 2017

Tunnel Visions

Potlucking It Through the Years

By Bonnie McCune

When I was just out of college, potlucks contained seven or eightselections of salty munchies and dips and only a few casseroles whose main ingredient was pasta. Criteria included cheapness, ease of preparation, and appeal to the lowest common taste.

Potlucks, popular year-round, are especially prevalent at holidays. You probably attend more than one during the year for a festive celebration. We feel an obligation to reaffirm ties with groups based on a common concern or interest: churches, schools, neighborhood groups, organizations supporting some burning issue or another. After all, these are the people we work with, or study great books with, or share babysitting with.

The potluck has its roots (or at least a root) in the American frontier. Families shared whatever happened to be bubbling over the fire with the weary pioneer who had just crossed the prairie. Thus, "the luck of the pot." At barn-raisings and in times of crisis, moms dutifully trotted out baked beans and cakes while dads shot deer or butchered pigs to serve the crowd.

Soon potlucks became competitive. No longer could Sis throw together her first pumpkin pie and expect praise. Instead, women plotted for weeks. They dug out old family recipes. If an innocent newcomer asked for instructions, her pretensions were quickly quashed with the phrase, "It's a family secret." Judgment was tangible and immediate. Favorites were wolfed down while dishes of lesser value languished on the collective table.

Although potlucks today are not as rigorous in their standards (no verbal abuse, and only small moués of distaste are allowed), remnants of potluck practices remain. Anyone who has suffered the rejection of an untouched lima bean casserole can empathize. And women with no source of pride but their cooking still delight in rejecting requests for the peanut butter pie recipe.

Potlucks over the years clearly demonstrate economic and social trends. A Christmas party used to require the sweetest dessert you could dredge up. Cookies of all types, sparkling with colored sugars and frostings, battled for space with cakes and tea breads. A platter of vegetables was the odd man out.

When I was just out of college, potlucks contained seven or eight selections of salty munchies and dips and only a few casseroles whose main ingredient was pasta. Criteria included cheapness, ease of preparation, and appeal to the lowest common taste.

As we started to raise families, potluck dishes incorporated Jello salads, bundt cakes, tuna casseroles and Kentucky-fried chicken. These foods stretched far and appealed to the child in all of us. Then cholesterol consciousness hit. Every food was vegetarian. My favorite was a concoction of soybeans and rice which, despite being cooked twice as long as the recipe stated, remained as crunchy and inedible as unpopped popcorn.

Once my kids attended school, I was relieved to discover a high proportion of Mexican-American families rejected diet crazes. They proudly brought tacos, enchiladas and tamales with nary a worry about fat content. Other parents learned a child cannot be forced to eat a spinach quiche at a potluck, so they returned to a more balanced selection of ravioli, meatballs and potato salad.

Then people became diet and health conscious, and women went back to work and had less time for baking. Food reflected these changes. At our neighborhood holiday potluck last year, cheese and crackers and cruditiés (as vegetables are now called) predominated, leavened by a few plates of variety meats or French bread with toppings. There was NOT ONE DESSERT!

Groups with regular potlucks begin to anticipate certain behavior from their members. At our annual block party last year, I swear I heard one neighbor whisper behind my back, "Oh, dear, here she comes with her raw vegetables and yogurt dip again."

Then there’s the group mother, in charge of organizing the food. This person (who used to be me) draws up extensive lists of categories of foods and assigns them. Without such a person, you well might wind up with too many desserts and not enough main dishes.

I abandoned the practice when I learned that many dishes overlap categories. Do I count a chef's salad as a vegetable or a protein? Is apple pie with whole wheat crust a fruit or a bread?

Another personality, the single male, usually is excused from contributing food. But a group will tolerate a lay-back only so long. Eventually he is asked to bring all the drinks for the entire party. Or nasty comments from women drive him to a desperate attempt at burned macaroni and cheese from a box.

He has no excuse. Nowadays virtually anyone can shine at potlucks. Simply order the equivalent of homemade dishes from the local deli. Treats like seven layer dip, basil-tomato pesto, artichoke spread, and crab cakes are commonplace.

Increasingly, folks, regardless of gender or time conflicts, are relying on outside assistance. This trend insures the continuation of a great American tradition. The potluck's appeal has always been more than simple frugality.

A potluck is a time to escape the constraints of china and diets. Most importantly the potluck sustains its emphasis on sharing, not only food, but also friendship.


Bonnie McCune is a writer and has published several novels as well as other work. Reach her at

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