I’ve got a love/hate relationship with potluck suppers. I do love the surprise. There’s no set menu. You arrive to find an entire buffet of homemade food, but you have no idea what each dish will be. Like Golden Corral without the spectre of salmonella.
But I hate them too. Because of the self-imposed pressure to perform. Whenever I’m invited to a potluck two thoughts come into my head: What can I bring that’s tasty. And what can I bring that takes almost no effort? While I realize these two things are not always compatible, they end up important because invariably I’m invited to a potluck during a week when I have a dentist appointment, three deadlines, two visitors, a dirty house, and I feel a cold coming on. My head understands no one is standing behind me with a “You Did Good” clipboard to check off. Still, a part of me wants to drop off a gorgeous golden-crusted concoction oozing deliciousness and have everyone exclaim, “You brought that?! Wow!” A part of me wants to win the potluck game.
Potlucks weren’t always so cutthroat in my head. When I was a poor college student and the larder was bare, I went to a few potlucks, not many, as my friends cocktailed, never cooked.* The ones I did attend were Stone Soup affairs. Folks brought what they had and we made do. Usually with cheap jug wine or Milwaukee’s “Beast”. I recall a special New Year’s Eve Gumbo Potluck in particular where everyone got drunk on sangria, then watched “When Buildings Collapse!” on Fox.
The competitive spirit creeped in the older I got. Maybe it was some twisted leftover childhood trauma from how I used to brag excessively about my mother’s cooking, then for our French dinner in middle school she dropped off a sad-looking green bean casserole. I recall a Christmas party in my twenties where I made chocolate paté from the “Great Chefs of San Francisco”. It took hours. And it made a shit-ton. I was eating chocolate paté in July. Not that’s a bad thing. Then there were the neighborhood picnics where I sweated and slaved over massaged kale like it was an Olympic hopeful before saying, “Fuck It!” and making a cold semi-Asian chicken salad from my Dinner Doctor cookbook.
I blame Food Porn, or what I lovingly call “Food Pron”. Ever since food became fetish it has to be camera ready. Dripping in delicious succulence and ready for its closeup. Which means it probably has to be fancy. Or at least involve bacon or tweezers. Because comforting casseroles and deviled eggs don’t scream, “Do me now! Do me hard!”
Case in point. The Friendsgiving event I attended a few weeks ago hosted by Our Local Commons. Now I love this event. I look forward to it every year. Local food purveyors, restaurant folks, and enthusiasts gather with their potluck offerings to give thanks, to drink local cider and beer, to gorge, and to collect funds for a local charity. And every year I sweat what to bring. Because these guys are professionals. And I’m just a scribbler who aligns herself with the professionals and hopes they’ll allow her to join the party.
And every year the food is stunning. Just Bon Appétit meets Gourmet magazine stunning. Without the benefit of food stylists. This year was no exception. Sizzling bacon-wrapped dates from Mas Tapas. Mushroom Tarragon Pithivier from The Spice Diva. Succulent roasted goat from The Ivy Inn. Buttery cauliflower paté, yes foie gras tasting stuff made from cauliflower! Gorgeous Pumpkin Cake with Salted Caramel Cream from Maliha Creations. Perfectly fondanted (fondant? seriously?) Hummingbird Cake. Just to name a few. And the taste? So good I want to give up.
So what’s a poor scribbler to do? Give up. Well, okay not give up, but settle for dishes I know at least taste good. They may not win any food stylist awards, but they’ll make your tummy happy. Last year I brought Cathy Fields’s Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding which doesn’t look like much but is guaranteed to add 5 pounds to your frame. This year I brought my Muddy’s Pound Cake. With some fancy schmancy apple butter from Paul Virant that I got from Fire, Flour, & Fork to slather on top. He’s a Michelin-starred chef from Chicago. I figured a little highbrow butter on some homespun cake couldn’t hurt.
How did the Friendsgiving turn out? I ate my weight in succulent bacon-wrapped dates and drank about a gallon of bourbon apple cider. Marveled at how gorgeously delicious a mushroom tarragon pithivier can be. Roasted mushrooms marry themselves with the licorice of the tarragon and the flake of the pastry (pithivier is a puff pastry pie, yes, I had to look it up) and make your tummy happy.
The ultimate chagrin? I went to cut a slab of Muddy’s Pound Cake to find only one thin sliver missing. But the apple butter was GONE. G-O-N-E gone. Sigh. Fancy-schmancy wins again. Sure, Muddy’s Bundt is homely. But in taste? It’s fucking gorgeous. Buttery, light, with the best part the chewy-browned outside layer. Like the best Blondie you ever had. Even better topped with the last vestiges of the apple butter. It added about 5 pounds to my frame. Which seems to be my new criteria for a good potluck addition.
So sure, the good-looking cakes cleared out pretty quick, while once again my homely contribution sat on its Dixie paper plate. That’s fine. Because at the end of the night there was more for me to take home. You can have your fancy cakes. I’ll pick my Muddy’s recipe every time. Not only is it a way to remember and honor her memory, in my humble opinion, it just tastes better.
Thank you to Our Local Commons, and all of the folks who made Friendsgiving possible this year. I truly enjoyed it. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Remember, whether your dishes are gorgeous or homely, no one is standing behind you with a clipboard. You’re fine. As long as the dish tastes good, everybody wins. Cheers!
*Ironically, one is now a chef while the other owns a restaurant. Go figure.