The problem with potlucks

Food historian Dan Curd loathes this food ritual
The problem with potlucks

Whatever you call it — a covered-dish supper, bring-and-share lunch, pitch-in dinner or potluck — the idea for this pooled meal where every guest contributes something probably began during the Great Depression. The ritual reached peak popularity nationwide during the 1950s, but remains a revered institution in the Midwest, especially in our state.

Whenever the next potluck date was announced at work, everyone would go gaga except for me. I would connive an excuse for my absence. It’s not that I’m stingy. I love to cook and feed others, but I don’t like feigning delight at eating things I would not otherwise touch — like microwaved Tater Tot Casserole, anemic turkey cooked in a Nesco roaster or, worst of all, Watergate Salad. This green mess made with pistachio-flavored instant pudding, canned pineapple, walnuts, marshmallows and Cool Whip is by no stretch of the imagination a salad! Then again, what potluck would be complete without Cool Whip?

The concept of “all you can eat” is proof that quantity is no substitute for quality. I loathe having to clutch my plastic cutlery, paper napkin and compartmentalized Chinet plate in one hand while loading up with the other. I prefer food served with some semblance of order, presented on real china and eaten with flatware that doesn’t break.

Too often there is little or no organization to these get-togethers — something that assaults me as a one-time professional event planner. A prime example is my former neighbor’s annual Easter brunch. “Just bring something,” she said. In all fairness, this was on the laid-back near east side during the 1970s, but one year all 20-odd attendees showed up with desserts (including a lot of Tunnel of Fudge Bundt Cakes).

I inherited my prejudice from my father. He abhorred not only potlucks, but also buffets or any meal served family-style. The only exception to my dad’s potluck ban came on Thanksgiving and Christmas. (That’s how I learned that when push came to shove, my mother always got her way.)

I suppose I had a sheltered childhood. I do remember going with family friends to the so-called Saddle Club just outside Podunk, Indiana. There were horses to be sure, but little else. No running water. No electricity. My hosts didn’t go there to ride; they went for the monthly pitch-in dinners and local fare like stewed bananas topped with chopped peanuts and Seven-Layer Jell-O Salad. Right out of college, co-op dinners were common, but held out of necessity rather than by preference. It was a time when tuna casserole was a mainstay and wine was more likely to come from a box than a bottle. Truly the most memorable dish (for all the wrong reasons) that I ever encountered at one of these communal feeds was a standing wienie roast — hot dogs strung together to form a ring and the cavity filled with pork and beans straight from the can. I concede — I am a food snob and proud of it. Regardless, when it comes to converting a potluck zealot to my point of view, I know I’m out of luck.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.