Every time my husband Ray and I give one of our monthly lunch parties some guest will ask if I wouldn't rather hold a potluck party so I don't have to cook for the 30 to 40 people who show up. It's a sweetly intended suggestion, but my answer is always a firm "Absolutely not -- I consider potluck to be a major sign of the decline of hospitality."
People will respond with "But I like potluck." To which I always say, "Then you should hold one. And I won't come to it. But if you're invited to our place you don't have to bring anything but yourself."
You know what I mean by potluck I'm sure but if not: it's one of those parties where every guest brings a dish. And that's what I'm denouncing in this blog post.
Is my generation the first to take potluck -- something you were stuck with at church and school socials -- and elevate it to the status of home entertaining? I fear that's the case, but I never went along with my generation's trend. I always hated and dreaded potluck meals. It meant that everyone brought some gluey or overly starchy or gloppy dish or worse -- fluorescent-colored jello weirdness -- that they only made for potlucks and you knew they never actually ate themselves.
Yes, everyone has some memory of that neighbor woman Esther who brought the best brownies in the world to the church potluck. But aside from Esther, who ever brought something to a potluck you ate without worrying about the digestive consequences? Fortunately, early on in the history of potluck, most people learned not to bring potato salad or their own lethal canned green beans. But really, how good have you ever felt tummy-wise after a potluck dinner?
I saw the Decline of Hospitality beginning with parties where I was invited and then instructed to BYOB. Maybe I was born a food snob but even then I thought it was declasse to ask someone to bring their own booze to a party. I even thought it was declasse to ask people to bring their own drugs. Well, yeah, I wanted somebody else to pay the big bucks for the cocaine. But I thought that BYOB showed a lack of hospitality even when the party took place only in a hot tub.
BYOB was hospitality-wrecking enough, but after that I started getting invitations to potluck dinners. "You're invited to our place for a party! Bring something to nibble!" That really galled me at the time, but I chalked it up to my boho friends not having any money or sometimes even a decent kitchen where they lived. It usually meant that there were five of the exact same macaroni salads, and six of the same tofu mash that the local health food store carried, and twenty boxes of crackers and cookies because of course we were all going to get stoned and have serious carb munchies. And the real stars of the potluck were the people who brought the weed, of course. (Or any other assortment of drugs.)
I have some nostalgia for the rap fests that ensued at these parties. But I have no nostalgia for the egregious potluck food and even then I worried that it signalled the end of hospitality. My parents' and grandparents' generations gave real parties. None of this BYOB shit or "bring something for us all to nibble." No, they were very proud of the food they served at their parties, so proud that they would immortalize their dishes in Junior League and Art Docent cookbooks.
Potluck be damned, I say. However, potluck has continued and I won't say it's flourished because that's giving it too much respect. But it has definitely grown expotentially. And really, there's no excuse for some of the people who throw potluck dinner parties. I know people who live in lavish places with gorgeous kitchens who will invite people over for "potluck!" In other words, they're saying "I'd like to be fed by a bunch of friends because it's my personal chef's night off -- so please bring entrees and appetizers, desserts and booze." And these people don't mean some cheapo dish you might pick up at the supermarket. No, they expect you to go at the very least to Whole Foods and spend $50 on the food and also pick up some super bottles of wine.
OK. When we invite you to lunch at our place I make it clear that I don't want you bringing any of the meal. I'm touched and pleased when people bring wine, candies, jams and candies and pastries as presents. But they'd be just as welcome in our place if they only brought themselves. I believe that when you enter our place you're our guest and it's our pleasurable duty to make you feel well fed -- it's not your duty to make us feel well fed.
And if I go to your place? I don't care if all you have is a bottle of Chuck and a bowl of edamame, but it means something to me that you invited me into your home and you want to feed me. Yes, maybe I'll be starving when I leave your place and need to stop off at a steak house, but I'll feel the love of your hospitality. And that's something we should all feel when we're invited to a party.