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Culinary Curiosities: What’s the History of the Potluck



How important is your potluck dish? Don’t underestimate the draw of your go-to casserole. 

It was a recent interview question for a friend (not in the food industry) when one of her potential coworkers asked, “What's your potluck dish?” My friend coyly replied, “You'll have to hire me and find out.” If someone in the office regularly brought black bean and quinoa salad, my buddy might still be perusing the want ads. (No word yet on the first office potluck or how her dish was received. It might come up on her first performance review.)

This got me thinking about the potluck in all its incarnations, from church basement to the next door neighbor's backyard. How did the bring-a-dish-to-share tradition begin? And why is it called a potluck?

It's hard to trace the potluck back to a specific source, but it's fair to say the term was used in the Middle Ages to describe an impromptu meal served to unexpected guests or travelers. Such a drop-in at the dinner hour would get “the luck of the pot:” whatever food was left over or kept on the simmer. Sometimes a potluck referred to a one-pot communal meal in which every cook brought something to add, rather like a “stone soup.” It wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th century in America that the idea of a meal where everyone brings a prepared dish to share took hold.

The potluck has several features to recommend it. It's easy. Cost and time are shared among all the participants. Cooks can play to their strengths. Some potlucks are true free-for-alls and you never know if there will be six kinds of potato salad and no desserts, while others have a theme or guests are assigned a category, such as dessert or appetizer. But no one likes a bossy organizer who assigns specific dishes or, even worse, hands out a specific recipe to follow.

As delightful as a potluck can be, there are hazards. For a person with food sensitivities or severe allergies, the covered-dish table can be frightening and disappointing. And one never knows the cleanliness of the kitchen or the cook's habits. Was a hamster running free over the cutting board? How long has that mayonnaise-based salad been sitting out? Is that dried egg yolk on the serving spoon? You get the idea.

Concerns about food safety at the church and school potlucks made headlines in 2011 when the Minnesota State Legislature passed the “Church Lady Law,” exempting faith-based groups from health inspections but also ensuring that at least one person in charge of the food preparation have adequate food safety training. Not only are the church fish fry and pancake breakfast going strong, but also by and large the “church ladies” (and gentlemen) had no problem with undergoing the training. No one wants anyone to get sick from hamburger hotdish.

There are a few basic guidelines regarding the potluck, whether you love them or hate them. If you are bringing food, have your dish ready to serve: Do not show up with a bag of groceries and cook from scratch. Don't expect your host to provide serving bowls or utensils, bring your own and label them. For those who hate to cook, I say, bring a bottle of wine. Or bring a take-out pizza or box of donuts from your favorite bakery. If you're worried about food safety, eat before you go and nibble on a few things you are comfortable with. Because the best thing about the potluck is the community that gathers—and you don't want to miss that. 

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