In Search Of Potluck Perfection

As an autumn chill grips the air, it's natural for us to hunker indoors together, over hearty fall fare, as if in training for holiday feasting.

At least that's the best explanation I can produce for hosting a potluck dinner the other week. Considering I'd never done so, it was probably my turn anyway.

But just as America's culinary tradition is epitomized by abundance, a proverbial chicken in every pot, so does every potluck need a chicken.

I'm it.

Over the years, even as a guest at church, neighborhood, or office potlucks, I've clucked about my role in the grand nonscheme of these gatherings. Will my seven-layer salad cut the gustatory mustard? If there's too much left over, I fear no one liked it; if it's gobbled up, I wish I'd made more.

For us finicky folk who wish to maintain a modicum of control over mealtime, potluck participation means taking not just a Tater Tot casserole but a flying leap of faith. I'm not a big believer in the potluck's hallmark, serendipity. Instead, I expect that, left to their own devices, 10 guests will show up with 10 devil's-food cakes.

So when I issued my invitations, I assigned categories. One guest would bring appetizers; another, salad; a third, dessert. I rationalized that this approach retained the requisite element of surprise while assuring some semblance of a balanced meal.

Yet during my telephone invitations, I was heartened as each guest asked to bring a course not yet spoken for. Perhaps serendipity was already at work?

Or perhaps not. One person asked to bring a friend. Striving to play the happy-go-lucky host from the get-go, I said yes. But secretly I stewed. A mystery menu I could manage; but a mystery guest? One random cook too many might spoil my social broth.

As the event approached, I ruminated about potlucks I'd attended over the years. It seems there are as many ethnic and religious renditions of this custom as there are hot-dish recipes. One local permutation, instituted by a group of politically active women, has a two-plank platform: (1) The contributed comestible must be store-bought, and (2) it must arrive in its original container.

However it came to be, the American potluck met the melting pot decades ago. Apparently, the English (despite their reputation for bland food) cooked up the term by adding "luck" to the "pot" during the late 1500s.

Dictionaries today define potluck as the regular meal available to a guest for whom no special preparations have been made.

That definition seems disingenuous. While the figurative use of "potluck" connotes iffy outcomes or any sort of spotty selection, the potluck practitioners I know typically prepare their most special make-ahead recipes for these occasions. In fact, potlucks can be as elaborate in their way as formal dinner parties. The main difference, oftentimes, is that dishes are delegated and effort thus diffused.

Thank goodness for that. The day before my own hosting debut, I fretted. Surely my guests wouldn't hold me responsible for the success of this hodgepodge meal - would they?

THAT night (in a single-handed attempt to repair the image of English cuisine), our appointed appetizer purveyor arrived with a platter of luscious little cucumber sandwiches.

The main course, which I presented with limited formality, was pasta with a light Alfredo sauce (all right, fancy macs and cheese).

Unfortunately, by serving time it had congealed somewhat - though no one complained. We'd had to wait for the salad person (who had settled on Caesar) to rend romaine, saut croutons, coddle eggs, crush garlic, and squeeze lemons. (Next time, I'll stipulate that contributions be assembled primarily in the preparers' own homes. Wait a minute. Did I say next time?)

No matter; the salad was eventually tossed to a satisfying, tangy turn. And the rich custard dessert, made with home-grown pumpkin, was sweet as could be.

As for the mystery guest, a mystery he remained. The guest who'd invited him had to cancel. I was disappointed, but in the spirit of spontaneity, I filled their spots with a couple I'd been wanting to know better.

As we descended on our amalgamated bounty, I sighed with relief: Pressure's off; soup's on. I suppose I could have compiled this mouth-watering menu on my own, but serendipity had served beautifully. Each guest (co-host, really) had expected of me merely table service and a spare chair. I'd obliged them and then some.

In fact, for a moment I wanted to claim major credit for the meal's success. Then I resolved not to be greedy. At a true potluck, there's always enough to go around.

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