Good luck, bad luck, in an American summer, it's often potluck. We hear "potluck" and a long table laden with slow cookers and salads comes to mind. It's funny, isn't it? Common words do have specific meanings, but we hear them so often that the words are reduced to just a label. "Potluck?" Gotcha.
The word "potluck" goes back to the 16th century. It meant whatever happened to be in the pot at the time, and by extension in the cupboard. On one hand, times haven't changed much, potluck often means whatever is on hand when unexpected guests arrive. Sometimes potluck for the family is called Desperation Dinners, meaning empty the fridge and let family members concoct what they can. That term brings Depression Dinners to my mind. Always an optimist, I sure hope a depression isn't on the horizon now. Depressions bring milk gravies on bread, Welsh Rarebit and waffles -- those suppers that, like the "Stone Soup" of children's literature, fed the hungry with little or nothing.
During the depression of the early 1930s, churches were a source of solace and hope and also physical sustenance. Women of the parish or congregation would bring the best dishes their thinly stocked cupboards could create to the church. These potlucks were called Penny Suppers, and they fed entire families who were members of the church for pennies. Records show it cost 10 pennies for a meat dish, five for corn or a cobbler portion and one penny for a slice of bread.
As much as we grumble with food prices today -- and they are high -- we are better off now, and the usual American potluck is actually a type of feast. The array of food, cooks bringing their best, evokes the merriment, the spirit, of a feast. I envision a well-fed man, now hungry again, rubbing his hands together as he starts down that potluck table.
Sure, not all potlucks turn out to be extravagant. Perhaps a casual plan, assigning salads, cold cuts, desserts, etc. to certain people or groups, is wise. Three cherry pies are not a problem, but seven seven-layer salads might be. Last summer, I recall a hostess anchoring a potluck with one roasted chicken. Who could have foreseen that most everyone was just too busy and brought only bags of chips and pretzels? Oh, folks laughed, but their stomachs growled!
I have a few strategies about potlucks, and they work for me. But, I'm sure you have your own ideas and they work well for you. I give you some of my thoughts.
-- Keep hot things hot and cold things cold.
-- Have plenty of food available, perhaps frozen dishes that can be quickly defrosted and heated in a microwave. Don't forget breads and desserts that freeze well, too. Choose things your own family will like.
-- A large offering, a turkey or a ham, can be partially carved, not only to look enticing, but also to make serving easier. Presenting "a whole bird" also evokes feasting feelings.
-- Potlucks are casual; keep the recipes simple, but delicious.
-- Don't forget presentation. Use color, simple garnishes like slices of colored sweet peppers, different types and colors of olives, crudités trays, spiraled cold sliced meats, etc. Colored napkins and plastic tableware add easy color.
-- Plan some dishes for children if they are included in the party. Think finger foods.
I think potlucks have a grace all their own. Each person that comes bearing a salad or a creamed corn casserole arrives with a story, something that happened at work, how her little boy helped make that salad, or the history of Aunt Maude's corn casserole recipe served at the farm. These affairs are people potlucks, too. That's what makes a potluck perfect.
Sally Ketchum is a northern Michigan journalist who writes mainly about food. She tends a large kitchen garden and grows culinary herbs. "Some herbs just for fun," she says. "Eggplants, all kinds, are Vegetable of the Summer here," she adds. Ketchum can be reached at email@example.com.