I grew up thinking potluck dinners were the only way to feed a large gathering of people. My Dad grew up in a large family, and I have more cousins than I could name when I was little. We would gather several times a year- my Gram’s birthday, Christmas Eve, spring clean-ups. My aunts would set up a buffet table near several electrical outlets, to accommodate the army of crock pots that would line up.
My mom would have spent the previous day cooking kielbasa and sauerkraut in her crock pot, a dish I could never bring myself to eat because of how God-awful (I thought) it smelled. Our house stunk for days afterwards.
Someone would make sausage and peppers in a crock pot, and my Aunt Janet always brought her Swedish meatballs in a crock pot. Didn’t everyone own at least one crock pot in the 70’s and 80’s?
Unfailingly, someone brought homemade macaroni and cheese and I always looked forward to Aunt Ellie’s chicken-broccoli-rice casserole. Which, incidentally, must be made with a jar of Cheez Whiz- nothing else makes it the same. This casserole always disappeared first- never any leftovers to share, so you had better make sure you got yourself a helping the first time through the line.
I was a picky eater as a child, and yet I liked the choices and anonymity a large potluck gathering offered me. I usually ate my weight in cheese and crackers and rolls, and all the grown-ups were too busy socializing over their cans of Schaefer or glasses of Kahlua and cream to notice.
The dessert spread would be just as plentiful; when Gram was alive, her brownies with walnuts were always my favorite. I don’t know what she did to that simple boxed brownie mix, but to this day I’ve never been able to duplicate it. There would be at least two Jell-O molds of varying degrees of complexity. One would be our family’s verion of “ambrosia,” a mix of Jell-O(at least I think it had Jell-O in it…), Cool-Whip, and little nuggets of canned fruit cocktail or mandarin oranges. The word “ambrosia” itself just always sounded to me like it should be offered at a toast, like saying “Cheers!” or “Mazel Tov!” I could never understand the appeal of this dish, but it made an appearance at virtually every family gathering. And there was usually quite a bit left over.
Potluck was the answer- and no one even needed to ask the question. The food brought us together. We shopped, we prepped, we looked forward to it, we shared, and we ate. The food was our common ground, through all the generations and age gaps in my big extended family.
And so it went with a group of show choir/theater kids: they arrived at our house on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, for a potluck “Friendsgiving,” each with a dish in hand. They brought smiles and stories and laughter. They filled their plates and crowded around our table, elbows bumping and reaching for glasses of sparkling grape juice. They toasted to good friends and good times. They ate and talked over each other, and ate some more. They debated the finer qualities of cranberry sauce, homemade versus canned. The helped clean up and load the dishwasher. And when my friend stopped by, they indulged her by singing a Christmas song when she asked. Fourteen teenagers, laughing and singing “Doo Wop Christmas” in four-part harmony, in my kitchen. Joyful. Priceless.
A dear friend and I recently hosted a Nutcracker cast party. When we figured out our guest list could easily top one hundred people with all the dancers, parents, and teachers involved, “potluck” was the answer. An overwhelming task was made easy by the willingness and generosity of all involved. Dish after dish was added to the buffet as guests arrived, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I looked at my friends and family and thought, “How lucky are we?”
It had been a crazy busy week- that Wednesday through Saturday had two dress rehearsals and two Nutcracker shows. Yet all these families made the time to bring food to share. And there was more than enough to go around. People took home leftovers, and my two teenaged nephews were fully satisfied, which is no easy task.
Somewhere along the line, potluck became more than just about the food. This is what it means for people to come together and share of themselves. It’s about the thought put into each dish– I made this for us to share. I brought this because I want to help. I did this to bring a smile to your face. I did this in the hope that people would enjoy it.
I am grateful to my family for continuing the tradition of potlucks, and for always opening their doors and hearts to me through their casseroles and crock pots. I am grateful to my friends for cooking and giving this past month- you helped create two wonderful days that my family and I won’t soon forget.
May your holidays be filled with loving family, good friends, and good food.