by Sara Mead
Like many who grew up Protestant in the Midwest, I have a lot of fond associations between faith and food. There was the annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake supper, the Thanksgiving dinner, the spaghetti supper–all big, fun communal events intended to raise money for the church, missions, or other worthy causes.
But best of all were potlucks–as we called them in Michigan–also known, depending on where you’re from, as covered dish or hot dish suppers. Sure, the various ambrosia salads, jello molds, campbell’s soup-based casseroles, seven-layer and seven bean salads (why always 7?), and bars would horrify Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, and there are plenty of old standards that I wouldn’t eat today and for that matter then (i was kind of a picky kid).
But there’s very little in this world that beats the German potato salad, deviled eggs, and pies made by Midwestern church ladies*–especially those who are old enough to have learned to bake in the days when everything was baked with lard. Sure, a lot of these are comfort food type dishes that, if you ate them regularly, would kill you, but others are not as unhealthy as they appear, and most can be enjoyed in moderation. And these are dishes that literally meet Pollan’s “would your grandmother recognize it as food?” test–far better than most of the things my foodie friends make today.
Ultimately, the real value in potluck is not in the foods themselves–however much everybody in church wanted to make sure they got a piece of the [insert awesome food here] that Mrs. [insert stereotypically Midwestern name here] always made for every potluck. It’s in the fellowship, the service of preparing a dish for others, the trust involved in relying on what others bring to feed you, and the consideration you show in taking small enough servings of that treasured dish to ensure there’s enough to go around. That’s a beautiful example of the kind of communities churches are supposed to be (but too often aren’t). And it’s also something that’s easily replicated in completely secular communities as well. We IFAers certainly love to get together and contribute dishes for a communal meal, and I’m betting you do, too.
There’s not really a point to this post, except that I think people should have more potlucks, I’m grateful for the potlucks I’ve been privileged to attend in my life, and I hope that, in this age of foodie-ism, epicurious, and organic/locally sourced/low-impact this and that, food lovers of all stripes can still appreciate the humble beauty of the classic American home cooking mastered by the church ladies of my youth.
So, what about you? Were potlucks part of your life growing up? Are they part of it today? Are there special dishes your relatives or family friends made to share that you still cherish today? Have you gotten any special recipes for dishes friends brought to a potluck that you’ve since incorporated into your repertoire? Do you have a go-to dish to take to communal suppers? Let us know!
*And a few men: My favorite cookies growing up were the “Chicago Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies” baked by a man who attended our church.