Luck of the Pot
The complete kit to navigating a holiday potluck: a sly strategy and a killer recipe.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
According to my Webster’s dictionary, the word “potluck” means either 1) “the meal available to a guest for whom no special preparations have been made,” or 2) “whatever is offered or available in given circumstances or at a given time.”
These definitions suggest that “potluck” is the culinary equivalent of “luck of the draw” or perhaps more accurately, “luck of the pot.” And while these definitions don’t fully explain the experience of potluck as I understand it, “a meal to which each guest brings a dish,” they do suggest potlucks can be a gamble.
The Webster’s definition is geared toward sentences like “It’s getting late, would you like to stay for dinner? You’ll have to take potluck.” Clearly, this is different from, say, “We’re having yet another potluck at our house, around 7 or so.” Despite these differences, both sentences are bound by the connective tissue of chance. But while the dictionary definition implies a limited set of possibilities, the common-use definition brings to mind a literal buffet of options.
Perhaps you detect a hint of sarcasm above. It’s worth noting that the frequency of potlucks in one’s particular circle bears watching because, as with the frequency of face cards in a game of blackjack, the Potluck Frequency (PF) should be an important factor in the development of your Potluck Strategy (PS).
Some gatherings are so predictable that you can, say, count on some guy named David bringing a large eggplant pizza. If so, great, because you also can count on certain people treating the potluck as an opportunity to clean out their fridge and stir the contents into a casserole of such random nature that certain theories of quantum physics are threatened. But the belly, the ultimate quantum processor, won’t be fooled. And while Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice,” it’s obvious that neither Einstein nor God has been to some of the potlucks I’ve survived. And let me tell you, treating your belly as the craps table upon which the potluck dice are rolled is dangerous business.
That’s why you need a sound PS that incorporates what is known about the individuals in the group, such as the group’s collective PF, the season (hello holidays), your personal dietary tolerances, and how long it’s been since your last colon cleansing.
Some people hit the potluck table like they’re big spenders and the store is closing in five minutes: “I’ll take this, this, this, and this…” Big Spender’s plate is soon full of carrot soup, bean and pasta salad, fridge-cleaning quantum casserole, walnut bread, tuna nachos and eggplant pizza.
I approach the potluck table with more of a bomb-squad mentality. I case the scene, including the layout of the room, any familiar or unfamiliar faces, and which dishes are getting the most action. (This latter bit of information should be processed for both the obvious conclusions but also in a contrarian light—for example maybe that untouched chili is simply an overlooked late arrival and worth considering.)
If I dive into the fray, I try to keep a “safety circle” of empty plates around each item. This allows me to isolate any disgusting dishes that somehow infiltrated, as well as to make intelligent decisions about what should be paired with what. The coconut curry works with the baked squash, for example, but I’ll keep the apple pie away from the fried liver.
It’s worth noting that dishes made with a minimum of processing are easier to gauge than meta-dishes like fridge-cleaning quantum casserole. And the ultimate hedge against poor options, of course, is to eat your own dish.