Potluck culture: Bringing people together, one dish at a time

Alice Bagley

Potlucks are about “sharing. Sharing a space, sharing food and sharing company,” said Sarah Reichardt. Potlucks are an important part of many communities, as a way of bringing people together and eating.
Kevin Van Meter echoed this sentiment, saying, “Community around food is beautiful.” This philosophy is a part of food cultures the world over. The Italians, famous for their food and strong culture, feel that eating alone is unhealthy, both emotionally and physically.
Potlucks go beyond just community around food; they create a community based on diversity. People like potlucks because of “all the different kind of food you wouldn’t usually eat together,” said Salka Thali.

I have been a fan of potlucks ever since my first year at Whitman. My first weekend here I went to a potluck at the Outhouse and was hooked. Potlucks allow you to interact with all sorts of food and people. If you make a particularly wonderful dish you never know who might seek you out to ask for the recipe.

I’ve noticed there is always less awkward small talk at potlucks because everyone wants to talk about food and cooking. People want to exchange recipes and brag about how they not only made that salsa from scratch, but they also grew the tomatoes.

This can of course often lead to competition. James Most agrees that potlucks are about competition and actually sees it as going much further. “Whose dish has the most sexy look? Who put in the effort to arrange each raisin? That person is the true champion of the potluck. That person will soon find a mate.”
Potluck culture: Bringing people together, one dish at a time | Illustration by Iris Alden

Like any social event, potlucks are certainly about making an impression on other people, including potential “mates.” This competition benefits everyone at the potluck, though. When you are trying to make a little bit more room on your plate for some baked butternut squash topped with fresh peaches you are probably thinking less about whether the chef is looking for someone to help keep their bed warm and more about whether it is wise to push that pesto too close to the raspberry cobbler.

Potlucks not only combine different foods and bring people together, they also act as a way to create a food community without any sort of hierarchy or division of roles. At a potluck everyone is the cook, host and guest. Everyone does dishes, everyone has to clean a dirty stove when they get home, and everyone gets fed.

Not all potluck experiences are necessarily good. The members of the Organic Garden Club, all experts in food and certainly potluck experts had a few dos and don’ts to suggest.

Do bring homemade bread and drinks; these are cooking from scratch home runs in any company. Show off those skills.

Do bring your own plates and silverware. Also make sure that you have a serving utensil for the dish that you brought.

Do have the courage to take the last bit of a dish. Somebody has to do it.

Do not bring dining hall desserts. Also at Whitman it is good to avoid meat dishes or at least have them clearly marked for all the vegetarians. Clearly marking your dish is really a good habit at any potluck unless the contents are obvious.

Do not bring instant food, especially instant macaroni and cheese. Do not just buy something. A potluck is about shared responsibility and equality. If not everyone buys into the idea, then the whole thing just falls apart.