Deconstructing Vermont's DIY dinners
A few weeks ago, my friend— call him Ishmael — invited me over for a potluck. Too busy to cook, I grabbed a bottle of wine and assumed other guests would pick up the slack.
That was my first mistake: At Ishmael’s Old North End pad, there was no food on the table. A few of the dozen-odd guests, like me, said they hadn’t had time to make anything. Others said they hadn’t had time to buy — in other words, they were empty-handed. A third cohort was armed with raw vegetables.
Ishmael reminded us that we’d been invited to a “juice potluck.” Another theme? I thought. I didn’t remember getting a memo. Then again, the more twentysomethings you meet in Vermont’s unofficial hipster capital, the harder it is to keep your topical eating invitations straight.
Later, as we were finishing a carrot-ginger-celery entrée, someone handed our host two Choco Tacos. Ishmael pulverized the vaguely Mexican treats and added a can of PBR. “Dessert?” he said, handing me a spoon. I slurped it down and forced a smile.
“You should write a story about potlucks,” Ishmael said. “We could do research together.”
I said I would consider the suggestion. His juice affair had already raised three questions in my mind. Namely, what is a potluck? Do any universal etiquette rules apply to this modern ritual? And finally, is the “theme” potluck just a trendy twist, or a postmodern perversion of a classic?
Anecdotally, most would agree that potlucks are a staple of Vermont life. In the 1970s, Northeast Kingdom commune dwellers may have attended more potlucks than family dinners. These days, Vermont bulletin boards and listservs burst with potluck advisories. Local politicos organize potlucks for constituents; a University of Vermont student lists upcoming potlucks on a “free food” Facebook page; and a Hinesburg nonprofit produces a four-page “Potluck How-to Guide” in PDF format.
But, if potlucks are a staple of Vermont life, their history is more obscure. The first use of the term cited by the ever-reliable Oxford English Dictionary — “That that pure sanguine complexion of yours may never be famisht with pot-lucke” — dates to 1592 and leaves me hopelessly confused.
One thing seems clear: A potluck offers guests the luck of the (cooking) pot. Unlike a meal with a set menu, a good potluck depends on a fortuitous combination of people and circumstances — in other words, on chance. When I ask a half-dozen Vermont potluckers to get theoretical, they agree that potlucks are social gatherings to which guests bring the food. Hosts don’t usually impose rules about what to bring, they note. But they do expect potluck guests to bring something.
There may be unwritten rules, too. Jasmine Walker, an experienced Burlington potlucker, explains the “guest thing”: Because hosts have to work on Monday mornings, potluck guests shouldn’t show up any later than fashionably, especially on Sunday nights. Wendy Coe, a long-time Old Northender, says potluck soup is a “pain” because it encourages the use of disposable bowls. A male acquaintance tells me guests should avoid being That Guy — i.e., the dude who brings the same damn thing to every potluck.
Turns out a fellow Vermont dude has already advanced the That Guy theory on popular food-themed website Oneforthetable.com. In an essay titled “Pot Luck,” Tom Maxwell, a television writer who owns a Bridport bed-and-breakfast, tells his readers that consistency is a big no-no at Vermont potlucks, for one simple reason.
“Once you’ve found a dish that’s appropriate, the tendency is to stick with it,” Maxwell writes. “This is a rookie mistake. The population here is small, so you’ll see the same people at the ‘Town-Hall-Theatre’ potluck who you saw the week before at the ‘Save-Otter-Creek’ potluck, so you can’t bring the same dish to both places. Well, you can, but then you’ll be known as ‘the bean guy,’ like this one fellow who inevitably shows up with the same Crock- Pot full of guess what.”
Not everyone agrees that “bean guys” are undesirable. A Montpelier baker, for example, tells me she always brings delicious cakes to potlucks, and her friends don’t seem to mind. Coe, who works at the Peace & Justice Center, points out that her friend Ed makes a delicious molasses-lima-bean casserole — what would a PJC potluck be without it?
“If you have a good thing going, keep it going, because there’s nothing worse than bringing something and having to lug it home,” says Coe, whose specialty is garden-grown pesto. “It’s nice to have your dish be popular.”
Talking potlucks with Coe, who supervises my garden plot at the Intervale, I fear my investigation may be getting too micro-local. For an urban perspective, I email my friend Dave Barker, a Middlebury College grad who lives in New York City. What are the rules, I ask, of potlucks in the Big Apple?
Barker begins by challenging my assumption that city dwellers share food with quasi-strangers, period. “‘Potluck’ itself sounds a little small-town and unsophisticated for this urbane metropolis,” writes the Brooklynite. In the rare event that New Yorkers attend potlucks, he adds, they certainly don’t prepare the fare themselves: “The unwritten rule would be to pick something up at a gourmet deli like Zabar’s or Balducci’s.”
For a West Coast point of view, I contact Teresa Stewart Sitz, a complete stranger from Los Angeles whom I’ve discovered by reading about a potluck on her website, Ouramericanfamilies.com. In a phone interview, 53-year-old Stewart Sitz tells me that in her experience, potluck customs differ by region. Swedish potlucks in Idaho, where she grew up, are very alcoholic; potlucks with her East Texas relatives are full of banana pudding; L.A. potlucks are heavy — or lean — on salad. But general potlucking rules apply across the nation, she guesses.
Including Tom Maxwell’s Bean Guy Theory? Yup, says Stewart Sitz — although in Los Angeles, potluck slackers tend to show up with bags of potato chips, not beans. (She encourages bachelor friends to bring bread.)
Given Stewart Sitz’s broad experience in things potluck, I ask what she thinks of themed ones — such as Ishmael’s aforementioned juice potluck. I tell her that same Ishmael wants to throw a “disco” potluck at a Burlington art gallery. Isn’t it hard enough for people to find a palatable dish to bring, without the host subjecting them to further limitations?
Stewart Sitz has never attended a disco potluck, but says it sounds like a pretty cool idea. As long as potluckers bring food to share, “Everything becomes fair game,” she opines.
Coe isn’t so hot on the disco potluck idea, which she says would only make sense if guests brought food associated with the disco era. “It’s almost like making it too structured,” she reflects. “I mean, it’s potluck food, but when you start having themes, it starts losing its flexibility.”
Jasmine Walker sees things differently — understandably, since the 25-year-old math tutor just might be Burlington’s queen of themed potlucks. Twice a month for the past two years, she’s hosted one with her housemates at their South End home. The potlucks have their own e-newsletter — the “Potluck News Digest” — that reaches about 120 people and includes classified postings.
Walker, whose favorite potluck themes include “Sledding,” “Yard Sale” and “YouTube,” says Coe’s concerns about thematic potlucks are unfounded. While admitting that theme eating can pose challenges — at a recent YouTube potluck, for instance, Walker’s guests were so enraptured by videos that they almost forgot to socialize — she believes themes don’t noticeably alter the essence of the ritual. (They don’t always dictate the acceptable food items, either.)
“It’s not that it’s different from any other potluck,” Walker concludes. “It’s just a bunch of people sharing food, and maybe they’re also dancing.”
One Sunday afternoon, I get a chance to sample Walker’s theme potlucks for myself — Ishmael has an invite, and he asks me to come along. Determined to be more prepared this time, I bake focaccia in a square pan.
Ishmael picks me up in his Corolla and drives straight to City Market. It’s already dark, and the checkout lines are packed with potluck slackers.
“I thought we were going to Jasmine’s,” I say.
“I didn’t have time to cook.”
After buying $3.74 worth of spinach, Ishmael asks me to transfer his greens from a square cardboard container to a round glass bowl that’s sitting in his backseat. I figure he’s going for the homemade look.
We arrive at Walker’s place slightly — but not excessively — late. The kitchen smells like a food court in an upscale mall. Walker’s housemates are baking quiche and pie. By the sink, a guy in a ski hat is garnishing slices of tomato with mozzarella. Another guest is setting a basket of steaming muffins on the living room table. Others swill oatmeal stout by a fake fireplace.
Where’s the theme? I wonder. Maybe Walker’s gone Old School.
Then a neighbor notices my focaccia.
She whispers: “Wrong shape.”
Two days later, I tell Wendy Coe how I brought a square appetizer to Walker’s circle-themed potluck. The dish, I explain, ended up beside a circular plate of tortillas and a bowl of sliced delicata squash.
“Did people give you a hard time?” Coe asks.
I say they didn’t, which is true. I don’t tell Coe that shame kept me from sampling my own cooking, or that, after forgetting my square pan on Jasmine’s kitchen counter, I decided to wait until her next potluck to ask for it back.
“You were just being the unique person,” assures my garden supervisor.
Then again, she adds, “You could’ve asked for a knife and cut the corners off.”