Over the weekend I went to a town-wide potluck dinner and barn bash at the antiques barn down the road from my house. It was just the sort of small-town gathering—replete with quirky characters and down-home entertainment—that television shows like Gilmore Girls and Northern Exposure have primed you to expect of rural communities, if with slightly less witty dialogue.
Three or four long tables were pushed together on the grass outside the barn, and there still wasn't enough room for all the dishes people brought. Even a Vegas buffet couldn't match the culinary variety on offer. A local liquor store owner donated wine.
I'm a "sampler"—I like little bites of different dishes—so it was difficult to restrain myself from taking too much food. This made for odd platefellows: chicken enchiladas astride mashed potatoes, nestled against Thai noodles and topped with asparagus and pungent chive blossoms. I had to taste both versions of rhubarb pie. It all worked, in a weird way, though my stomach didn't seem to appreciate the meal's diversity as much as my palate did.
Perhaps I should have taken a cue from the young man who was my potluck-strategy opposite, whom I had observed as I stood in line with my camping mess kit (it was a BYO-place-setting affair). I marveled that he had piled his plate with a single kind of pasta and a piece of bread, and wondered if he was such a picky eater that he couldn't find anything else to appeal on the whole spread, or if he was a germphobe who trusted only his own (or his family member's) cooking. As I watched him, it occurred to me that a potluck is an interesting place for anthropological observation—both for how people choose to fill their plates and what they bring.
Potlucks are by no means a strictly rural phenomenon, of course, and over the years I have been to all kinds, from suburbs to big cities, giving me ample opportunity to observe a few common threads. For instance, some people are palpably anxious about what they've brought—will people like it, will other people bring the same thing, or—worst of all—will someone else bring the same thing, only better? As an insecure cook, I am usually in the worrywart category, but this weekend's gathering was big enough to be anonymous. I must admit, though, to being relieved that my dish (the spicy sesame noodles at the bottom right of the picture) was emptied relatively quickly.
At the other end of the spectrum is the person who brings something that isn't just store-bought (in itself a bit of a cop-out, but excusable if it's something good) but ridiculous, like a box of cereal. I'm not making this up—there was always someone like this in my college art classes, when we were all supposed to bring in food for the final critique.
According to Foodtimeline.org, the original meaning of the term "potluck" was what a traveler or unexpected guest ate—whatever was cooking that night, without special preparations made. It first appeared in print in the 15th century. The second meaning, a group meal in which guests bring a food contribution, came later, though the practice itself has probably been going on as long as societies have gathered for celebrations such as weddings. In some regions of the United States and the United Kingdom, these events are called covered dish suppers, Jacob's suppers, or Jacob joins—though I could find nothing definitive on the origin of the Jacob connection, some sources suggest it has to do with the Biblical story of Jacob tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright with an offering of food.
As far as I know, everyone left our community supper with their birthrights intact, though I wouldn't be surprised if a few belts were loosened.
In case you're wondering, the sesame noodle salad I made was adapted from a recipe from Sunset magazine. I used linguine and added thinly sliced red pepper, chopped scallions, a little Sriracha chili sauce, some extra soy sauce and a little lime juice, then served it chilled.