Let’s Make This a Potluck-Free Century


HAVING TAKEN ROOT, bad ideas are near impossible to eradicate. You can chop away at the spreading menace, and you may even effect some evident gains. But in short time, the bad ideas pop up again. The potluck, for example.

I’ve been complaining about the potluck almost from the afternoon I first learned of it. Have you ever wondered about the history of this practice? No, me neither. I can’t rouse myself to investigate it, either. So I’ve made something up that feels like a probable potluck background.

The first thing to note is that it’s misleading to say, as I just did in the previous paragraph, that a potluck is “a practice.” The potluck was almost certainly invented by people who never practice anything, and especially never practice cooking a decent, edible meal.

Think about it. Every potluck you’ve ever been to looks like this:

  • Two delicious-looking dishes that will feed about 27% of the present company
  • Numerous cases of canned Pepsi
  • Countless bags of potato chips
  • Napkins

A potluck is an exercise in game theory, in which you’re forced to make a choice: either you’ll be one of the schmucks who wastes his time and money preparing presentable food, or else you’ll be one of the schmos who arrives with a box of Twinkies. Most of the people who go to a potluck will fall into the schmo category, which means you’ll be eating schmo food — even if you prepared a schmuck spread on your own time and dollar.

I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t been on both sides of the divide: I’m a schmuck as well as a schmo, depending on what is going on in my life at the moment. The point is you lose either way, so why even bother? You’re either the fool who actually put in the effort when no one else did, or you’re the goof who didn’t.

The word potluck comes from a compound term: “pot,” meaning “the thing you put it in,” and “luck,” meaning “good luck on getting a decent meal.” A potluck is at bottom a huge roulette wheel of comestibles, in which you throw all ordinary human concern for nutrition and palatability and presentation and digestion and taste to the winds, deploying all your dietary chips on chance. Maybe that’s how the chips came into it.

Now to be fair, potlucks are a great way to subsidize culinary-challenged bachelors. In a world populated exclusively of doting grandmas and their college student descendants, potlucks would be the only kind of meals that would ever occur. Instead of restaurants, we’d have magical places where you’d bring your bag of no-name barbecue chips and parlay it into a bottomless trough of down-home gustatory goodness. Your waiter would come round every five minutes, note that your plate wasn’t entirely clotted, and insist upon your having more.

That’s not the real world of potlucks however. Believe you me, there are plenty of middle managers in the potluck’s Twinkie-and-Pespi camp. Why not? As of this moment, no law or social stigma compels them to aim higher. There’s no website called lookwhobroughtchips.com the way there are websites for people who leave stingy tips in restaurants or who take up three seats unnecessarily on a rush hour subway. This is a huge social justice issue, and we’re letting it go unnoticed.

A good meal is like a good symphony or a good ballet or a good painting or a good movie. It can’t be left up to luck. Nobody says to the actors, “just show up with whatever lines you want to say, and whatever plot you have in mind, and we’ll film it.” There are no novellucks or houselucks. You want the carpenter to have a floor plan before he starts framing, and you want the engineer to have thought about how planes work before your flight takes off. So why is it that we’re willing to leave a meal to mere, stupid human luck?

For these reasons, I’m declaring the 21st Century potluck free. I hope you’ll join me. Bring something expensive and delicious to the “potluck free” celebration party — something amazing that took you a long time to make. I have some wonderful cream-filled sponge cakes that will go with it.

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