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Of Potlucks and Hospitality

What happened to the church potluck? Richard Beck fears it is an increasingly rare and neglected tradition:

… Potlucks are happening less frequently and, when they do happen, they aren’t done very well. A symptom of a potluck gone bad at our church is when the potluck has to be supplemented by Little Caesar’s pizza.

So I have to ask, is the Golden Age of the Church Pot Luck over? It seems so.

With our friends we floated two hypotheses about the decline of the potluck. The first was church size. It seems that churches are either very big or very small, making it harder to achieve the sweet spot for a congregation-wide potluck.

Our other hypothesis was about a loss of generational skill. The consensus was that our mothers and grandmothers really knew how to do a potluck. And the main thing was that they brought to the potluck a ton of food, enough for their family and many, many more. And that, we all know, is the secret to having a good potluck. You have to have a critical mass of people bringing more food than they or their families will eat. A lot more food. And our mothers and grandmothers had go-to pot luck dishes to help produce this abundance.

Though Beck has a good point about church size, I think it would apply more to the large church than to the very small—having attended a tiny little church that had potlucks every other week. The very littleness of our church guaranteed that we would be meeting up regularly: events were easy to coordinate, and easy to host. At a large church, if any such gathering happens, it’s usually catered by an outside organization—which seems to remove some of the personality, initiative, and enthusiasm. Can you compare a picnic with Chik-fil-A sandwiches to a potluck with Mrs. Smith’s grandmother’s chili and Mrs. Johnson’s famous cornbread?

This ties in to Beck’s point about skill: if we aren’t used to providing food for large groups of people, we won’t have the tools in our tool belt with which to do so. And it seems that large communal events are an increasingly rare thing—with the exception of Christmas and Thanksgiving, how often do we host a large group of people (let alone make all the food ourselves)?

For those of us who grew up in a potluck-y church, we saw our mothers and grandmothers do this very thing. I was raised in an area where casseroles, “salads” (often of the potato and jello varieties), and pies were ever-present at social functions. And these women knew how to cook in bulk—I don’t think I even knew an 8×8 pan existed until middle school. The 9×13 reigned supreme. Our church had one Sunday potluck a month dedicated to soups: everyone brought their favorite family recipes, with appropriate accompaniments (homemade rolls, cornbread, cheddar or sour cream, et cetera). The regularity of these events, their steady rhythm of comfort food and care, made it so each of us knew what was expected, and had a support team (as well as a swath of amazing recipes) when our turns came to cook.

But another modern potluck problem that Beck doesn’t mention—one I think worth considering—is that a change in diets may have affected people’s comfort levels when bringing food to an event. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that people are pickier these days. We have such an abundance of special diets—gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, paleo diets, vegan diets, et cetera—that it becomes really challenging (and intimidating) to bring food to a function. I understand that many of these new diets and eating styles are related to medical problems—but there are many that are not. At the church potluck, you can try to please everyone, yet still walk home with an untouched crockpot or casserole dish. And there’s nothing more heartbreaking than having poured your heart and soul into a dish for an event, to then drive home with full hands.

You see, the hospitality of a potluck requires gracious bakers and cooks—absolutely—but it also requires gracious eaters. It requires those with picky taste buds and dietary preferences to be as magnanimous as they can be. It requires those who may look down on meat-eaters to exercise some charity when they see a platter of bacon-wrapped jalapeño bites (and vice versa: the church potluck isn’t time to tease or make fun of your vegan friend). Meanwhile, it requires us to be aware of those with actual medical restrictions, to strive to learn how to cook for them—while also requiring them to be aware and gracious of our ignorance: to be willing to provide their own food, and to slowly educate other cooks on what they can or cannot eat.

The church potluck is an incredible opportunity for us to break bread together: to enjoy each other’s company, and learn valuable lessons (and recipes) from each other. But it also requires a lot of us: as Beck puts it, it’s “excess and abundance that makes the hospitality of a potluck possible, allowing the spontaneous invitation to the visitor who comes empty-handed to be an experience of gift and grace.” It can be difficult to buy the groceries and dedicate your Saturday night to putting together an abundance of food for a potluck. But it’s grace—an excess and abundance of it—that enables us both to feed each other, and to be fed.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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