Thursday, May 02, 2013

Pot "Luck"

The potluck is one of those unique cultural events in the United States that has a whole host of usually unspoken rules and expectations associated with it. The word originated in the 1590's and generally just meant a meal where there was no planned menu and so there was some level of "luck" or chance as to what might be in the pot.

The no planned menu fits in with our modern American concept of the potluck, where participants generally bring dishes without planning some sort of cohesive whole one with another. While there may be some discussion about what sorts of dishes might be brought, there is no proscriptive list of requirements. As a side note, this is where Kurdish potlucks differ, meaning that everyone organizes what food will be brought to a picnic so that there is always the yaprax, bryani, rice, kifta, and cake. There is no luck left in that pot unless you include the fact that it has sat warm on a bus for hours before you eat it.

The American potluck has just as many rules but all carefully cloaked in the filmy garb of individualistic freedom that we are so fond of. First, women bring the food. Single men are congratulated if they bring a 2-liter of soda or a stack of paper plates. Second, one must bring ample amounts of food, not merely enough to serve your own family but usually enough for at least 30 people. Third, everyone else will definitely be judging you on what you brought by both how well they liked it and by how much is left over when the meal is finished. Since everyone eats a lot at potlucks (another unwritten rule) if there is very much of your food left over, it must be a dud.

There are many more unspoken rules but some are based primarily on more local culture. I have noticed that here in the South, vegetables, unless done as a veggie platter, must have butter, whereas, in the Northwest, they must not have butter. Also along those lines, fried food is far more popular in the South. I had never seen anyone bring restaurant fried chicken to a potluck before until I lived in Nashville. Along with that, a lot of my friends are also seriously into various types of health food and healthy eating. No community is completely homogeneous. I'm sure if I went further south or to the Northeast other variations would appear.

Knowing that there are these unspoken cultural rules, while often a blessing, can also be a curse. I always felt like I knew what to bring to a potluck in the Northwest (we almost always had breakfast ones), now I can easily be paralyzed by all the unknown possibilities. How does one play the rules of this particular game? In this city? With these people? How does one serve the vegan, gluten free, butter loving, organic, almond milk, fried chicken people? And you wonder why I find this intimidating! (And I haven't even gotten to the pressure I've heard other single women talk about where they feel like their potential wife skills are being judged by what they bring to the potluck.)

I'll be honest. I have no idea. But I'll be going to the potluck this Sunday. And I'll bring something. Any suggestions?

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