"Yes, a potluck is about gathering at table to eat, but mostly to participate with a community by sharing our individualized contributions – table fare and conversation and presence."
Are Potlucks Dead?
I recently read a blogpost decrying the death of the church potluck. The author's main complaint is that potluck contributors have become stingy, bringing nary enough to feed their own families, leaving the buffet tables prematurely bare. This is not the case at my church! Come on by. At senior lunches and occasional evening dinners – often featuring a program – our tables are laden, leftovers aplenty.
A potluck experience is a step beyond “stone soup,” where everyone’s offering gets thrown into one communal pot, everything similarly spiced. Potlucks provide high-rated culinary satisfaction. We each contribute favorite items, served in a buffet-array, where a mac and cheese tastes like a mac and cheese, distinct from its neighboring meatloaf. It’s not a culinary competition and ultimately it’s not really about food. Yes, a potluck is about gathering at table to eat, but mostly to participate with a community by sharing our individualized contributions – table fare and conversation and presence.
Here are some thoughts for making potlucks work:
Put someone in charge! Volunteers are needed for set-up and clean-up, but one person should set the parameters: who, where, when, why? What is the purpose of the gathering? Will there be a creative theme that focuses promotional efforts and decorations or even food? A stewardship push? A harvest thanksgiving? A basic celebration of the participatory nature of the church?
At our church, using the theme “There are varieties of service, but the same Lord…” (1 Cor. 12:5 ESV), our congregation had great fun with a Pie-Us dinner. The coordinator suggested contributions in every category: pot pie, shepherd’s pie, pizza, quiche, fruit pie, whoopie pie, moon pie. There was even fodder for a brief meditation about piety.
What will the church or sponsoring group provide? Main dish? Hot or cold drinks? Serving dishes and/or paper products? If you’re expecting a large crowd, set up several buffet lines, with diners moving down both sides. Provide two serving spoons for main dishes. Set desserts at a separate table, possibly near the beverages.
For a truly old-fashioned potluck, there’s no need to assign what to bring. (You may have been to a dinner that assigned by surname: A–I, main dish; J–Q, side dish; R–Z dessert.) But a happenstance meal requires participatory levity. Does my friend accurately remember a childhood meal where everyone brought baked beans?!
Ask potluckers to bring a “ready-to-eat family-style dish.” In other words, enough food to satisfy the appetite of their family unit, plus a few. Don’t be too specific. Singles see great inequity when everyone is instructed to bring a dish “to serve eight.” Conversely, a large family shouldn’t be expecting a free pass. Try to discourage those who want to prepare or even heat once they get to church; ready-to-eat is important for church-kitchen sanity. Welcome all offerings with a smile, but pray that you’re not handed a pound of dry navy beans (as I’ve heard tell).
Back in the day, people were asked to bring their own tableware, which minimized dish-washing clean-up and/or the expense of buying paper/plastic goods. I like the old-fashioned self-reliant, potentially eco-friendly expectations, but not everyone does. Consider having an assemblage of serving spoons and church platters on hand, especially for those who want to participate but may only have time to bring store-bought food. What are your people’s priorities? Ask yourself the question, and then choose among options.
Know your church culture and work with it. My church blesses the food quickly, skirting the need for warming ovens. I’ve read of congregations where the tacit meaning of the announced starting hour meant “time to set up” not “time to eat.” Make sure newcomers know these unstated preferences, and be welcoming regardless of when folks show up.
Unless you’re sure everyone is well acquainted, encourage name tags. Conversation starters will be welcome by some tables, but don’t push a fake agenda. Last winter, at the end of an engaging lunch with strangers, I learned that a nearby table had run through a whole list of ice breakers (one set at every chair), while my table had disregarded them all and made our own way.
The Community Spirit
There are few opportunities these days for people who are not family to share a meal. Encourage sitting with new people, and discourage any type of "holy huddle." I’ve never forgotten my dad’s “don’t bunch up” church-dinner exhortation; he encouraged household members to sit side by side, allowing for across-the-table conversation with “others,” whether friends or strangers. He also encouraged people to look for new connections. Too often the newcomer or odd-fit family ends up at a table alone, remembering the intimidation factor of a school cafeteria, and vowing never to attend another church supper.
One more time—a potluck is not singularly about a buffet-array. It’s about community participation and conversation, one step removed from—maybe feeling a bit safer than—the intimacy of getting together in individual homes.
When things are winding down, remind participants to take home their dirty dishes (no need for a committee to wash much more than serving spoons and pitchers). Thank everyone for their participation, noting that the variety of the congregational gifts made the event work.
Evelyn Bence is author of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books). Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Washingtonian, Books & Culture, US Catholic, among others.
Did you enjoy this article? Consider subscribing to Building Faith and get every new post by email. It’s free and always will be. Subscribe to Building Faith.