In the thirty years I lived in Los Angeles, I experienced a wide array of social gatherings including a séance, a cocktail party in a cancer ward and an evening of Pictionary at the home of the late Don Knotts. But, I never went to a pot-luck dinner.
That all changed when my wife and I moved to Vermont. As another transplanted Californian put it, pot-lucks are, “the coin of the realm,” here in the Green Mountain State. Drive through any village around dusk and you’re bound to see people crossing lawns with casseroles in hand as they head for gatherings of book groups, political clubs and contra dancing societies.
On the whole, this is a genial tradition very much in keeping with the unpretentious, do-it-yourself philosophy of the state. However, despite all their ostensible laid-back, down hominess, pot-lucks present their own particular pressures. First of all, unlike going to somebody’s house for dinner in LA, you can’t just pick up a bottle of wine on the way. You’re expected to bring food and I’m not talking about a bag of store-bought cookies--you have to make something.
This requires planning, shopping and cooking. We’ve found the best dishes are those that can arrive cold, such as devilled eggs (plus, we have chickens) and that won’t spill in the car as you rattle down bumpy, dirt roads (the stain made by a slushy, blueberry cobbler is almost impossible to get out of upholstery).
Once you’ve found a dish that’s appropriate, the tendency is to stick with it. This is a rookie mistake. The population here is small, so you’ll see the same people at the “Town-Hall-Theatre” pot-luck who you saw the week before at the “Save-Otter-Creek” pot luck, 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.
Another awkward moment, which you’re bound to experience if you go to enough pot-lucks, is showing up with the same dish as somebody else. There’s always a good chuckle about this, but behind the laughter is a competitive tension. I can tell you from personal experience, it’s no fun watching someone else’s macaroni and cheese disappear as yours sits on the sideboard, untouched, like the plastic food they use in commercial shoots.
Finally, there’s the pressure to try some of everything in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings. This was brought home to me at the “Helping-Hands-For-Hospice” pot-luck. I had filled my plate and was headed for the beverage table for some apple cider, when confronted by an agitated woman, who asked me point blank why I wasn’t trying her candied yams. I assured her it was an oversight and quickly added a spoonful of the sugary, orange goo to my meal. As I did so, I asked her why she hadn’t selected any of my wife’s cherry crumble. The woman said she was allergic to wheat and that even one bit of the crust would cause her throat to close. I’m sure she was lying.
Tom Maxwell is a former director of The Groundlings and TV writer. He now lives in Vermont where he and his wife operate Fairy Tale Farm Bed and Breakfast.
by Chef Mark Shoup