Hot Dish: Pot Lucky

tuna casserole

Tuna Casserole

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.

4 responses to “Hot Dish: Pot Lucky

  1. Nice. I come from a large family full of foodies, and luckily most of us live right here in Maryland. So we have an ongoing tradition of potlucks. Molly makes the most amazing salsa … Mom makes empanadas, when she’s feeling ambitious … I often make my signature wasabi-dill devilled eggs. We’re having a potluck this Sunday, in fact, for my stepfather’s 70th birthday! I will be taking a fabulous creamed butternut squash dish that a cousin showed up to Thanksgiving with one year, and passed on the recipe; quiche with non-pork fillings TBD (waiting to visit the farmer’s market tomorrow afternoon); and kale with seasonings TBD – plain old wilted with garlic & EVOO is delish, but I want to mix it up a little. Thinking something with tahini….

  2. I am fortunate enough to live in Hawaii where potlucks are, as it seems to me anyway, part of the local culture. On any given day in any given beachpark there are large gatherings of families and friends grilling and sharing communal food. I guess the strict distinctions between a picnic, potluck, and barbecue are blurred for me a bit, but in Hawaii they all involve gatherings of friends, family, and food. I go to a potluck almost every weekend. It’s one of the best things about living out here. Of course one of the other good things is the weather and the ocean which makes it possible to do the necessary exercise to keep the negative residual effects of excessive potlucking at bay.

  3. Roman Catholic potlucks in NJ always involved
    baked ziti and sausage and peppers. Always. If you were lucky enough to throw a polish grandma in te mix, you also got pierogis

  4. I guess my experience is somewhat different. Throughout my adult life potlucks have been a pretty common thing among my community of friends. One of the many differences between the potlucks today and those of my youth is how much better I find today’s fare. I’m certainly a much better cook than my mom or any of her friends were. Many of my friends are in the same position. Even the specific examples you give such as deviled eggs and pies make regular potluck appearances today in much better form than anything I saw as a child. I like your sentiments about the nature of potlucks, but your nostalgia for the food of your childhood seems curious to me.

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