A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

The Potluck Party Phenomenon: Why people just keep coming back for more

by Rebecca Shea   

I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve attended and hosted my fair share of potluck suppers and they are one of my favorite ways to catch up with friends and family. When your ticket in is just one dish but you can sample from many, while meeting friends or visiting with family, what’s not to love?  

Potluck (or covered dish) suppers developed out of the traditional practice of wasting next to nothing. A pot was kept on the hearth fire into which all scraps of kitchen meat and vegetables were added throughout the day. The practice was prevalent in taverns and inns in medieval times and in homestead kitchens for centuries. The pot boiled all day resulting in a hot mishmash meal that was at the ready when hungry family members or unexpected guests stopped in. What your meal tasted like was the “luck of the pot.”

French cooking has a related term, pot au feu, literally “pot on the fire” which refers to an enormous pot of beef stew made up of local vegetables, herbs, and low-cost, bone-in cuts of meat simmered for an extended number of hours. Anthony Bourdain, American chef and author, refers to this quintessential French dish as “soulfood for socialists.”

In modern times, churches, social organizations, and even workplaces organize potlucks  to define and support communities. Today, more and more households and friend circles are embracing potlucks as a fun, easily organized form of entertaining. The model remains the same—everyone who comes contributes something to the meal (a dessert, main dish, seasonal side, something to drink, etc.) The emphasis is on convenience as well as taste, so these easy-on-the-host and guests gatherings quickly become feasts of home-cooked favorites and simplified gourmet dishes.  

Foodie magazines publish “helpful hints,” sometimes even “rules” to help people organize a successful potluck supper. With checklists for the hyper-organized, advice runs the gamut of suggesting emailing a sign-up sheet for dishes beforehand to avoid getting multiples of popular dishes to selecting a specific cuisine theme to avoid dishes that may clash.

I browse these articles but still prefer potluck suppers that embrace the freedom of choice and chance as part of the fun. Who cares if the dishes clash or if everyone brings lasagna? Whatever happens, happens—you never know. Everyone seems to have a great time without being told what to do.
Sometimes, obsessive planning makes things perfect not great. Potluck suppers are inherently informal affairs—usually messy, crowded, and rather raucous affairs with a make-do, help-yourself atmosphere. You may notice that the only time the room quiets down is when everyone is enjoying their meal! The atmosphere is the opposite of an formal sit-down dinner party.

Those of us who are tasked with making or helping make meals every day for family relish any invitation to a potluck. They offer a respite for making a whole family meal; we get to sample other dishes; and we can even pick up some hints while sampling spreads. The recipes we come home with after a successful potluck usually become family favorites.

So, the next time you get an email, a phone call, or, if you’re lucky, a paper invite to a potluck—accept. It’s sure to be a great evening of food and fun with friends and family. If you can’t cook, don’t worry. Just bring two bottles of wine (nobody will complain).

Here’s a dish that I like to bring to potluck parties because it is effortless, pretty, nutritious, and easy to transport. Plus, it’s tasty hot, warm, or even chilled as proven at last month’s potluck party held in a drafty old farmhouse.

Organic Sweet Potato Casserole (adapted from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon)
Serves more than 8

• 6-8 large organic sweet potatoes
• grated rind of three lemons
• juice of 3 lemons
• 1/2 cup good butter, softened
• 3 egg yolks (local is better)
• 1 teaspoon sea salt

• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
• Wash and dry the sweet potatoes. Then, using a standard fork poke deep holes all around spuds.
• Bake sweet potatoes for at least one hour until the skins are crisp but the flesh beneath feels cooked through.
• Hold potatoes with a pot holder, cut in half and scoop out potato flesh from skins while they are still hot. Compost potato skins.
• Place potato in a bowl, mash and mix with butter, lemon rind, lemon juice, egg yolks, and sea salt.
• Transfer mixture to a buttered ovenproof casserole dish and bake for about 45 minutes.
• Serve and enjoy!