On any given evening in Missoula, a significant percentage of the population has gathered together for a “potluck” dinner. Why the quotation marks around “potluck,” you ask? Well, according to my Webster’s Dictionary, potluck means either “the meal available to a guest for whom no special preparations have been made,” (that’s the first definition), or alternatively “whatever is offered or available in given circumstances or at a given time.”
These meanings suggest that “potluck” is the culinary equivalent of “luck of the draw.” And while they don’t fully explain the commonly used meaning of potluck as “a meal to which each guest brings a dish” (my definition), it doesn’t take a particularly clever reader to realize how the element of chance underlies all of these variations.
The Webster’s definition seems geared toward sentences like “It’s getting late, would you like to stay for dinner? You’ll have to take potluck.” Clearly, this is different from “We’re having yet another potluck at our house, around seven or so.” Nonetheless, both sentences are bound together by the connective tissue of chance. But while the old definition implies a limited set of possibilities, the new one brings to mind a literal buffet of options.
Perhaps in my above sample sentence you detect a subtle flavor of sarcasm buried between lines like “yet another potluck.” Well, it’s worth noting that the frequency of potlucks in one’s particular circle bears watching, because like the frequency of face cards in a game of blackjack (another game of chance), the Potluck Frequency (PF) should be an important factor in the development of your potluck strategy on any given night.
Some people or groups are so predictable that you can, say, count on some guy named David being there with a large pepperoni pizza from Biga.
If so, great—especially if you like pepperoni pizza. Because you can also count on certain people to treat the potluck as an opportunity to clean out their fridge and stir it into a casserole of such random nature that certain theories of quantum physics would be threatened. But the belly, the ultimate quantum processor, won’t be fooled.
That’s why you need a sound potluck strategy that incorporates what is known about the individuals in the group, the group’s collective PF, the season (open-grill potlucks during hunting season are recommended), your personal tolerances, and how long it’s been since your last colon-cleansing.
Some people hit the potluck table like they’re a big spender and Macy’s is closing in five minutes: “I’ll take this, this, this, and this…”
Big Spender’s plate is soon full of carrot soup, bean and pasta salad, fridge cleaning quantum casserole, walnut bread, tuna nachos, and pepperoni pizza from Biga. Hopefully, Big Spender factored in the fortitude of their gastrointestinal quantum processor when they chose this path.
I approach the potluck table with more of a bomb squad mentality. With careful steps, I size up the whole picture, including the layout of the room, any familiar or unfamiliar faces, and which dishes are getting the most action. (This information should be processed for both the obvious conclusion but also in a contrarian light—i.e., maybe that untouched antelope chili is simply a late arrival and worth considering.)
If I dive into the fray, I try to keep a “safety circle” of empty plate around each item. This allows me to isolate any disgusting dishes that somehow infiltrated, as well as make intelligent decisions about what should be paired with what. The coconut curry works with the baked squash, for example, but I’ll keep the apple pie away from the fried liver.
Speaking of baked squash, it’s worth noting that foods with a minimum of processing are easier to gauge than meta-dishes like fridge cleaning quantum casserole. And the ultimate hedge against poor options, of course, is to eat your dish. That’s called creating your own pot-luck.
Here’s a recipe, supposedly for a Cuban dish, although I never tasted anything like it when I was in Cuba.
Break or cut half a baguette into cubes, and sauté cubes in three tablespoons of olive oil in a pot until they begin to brown. Stir in 12 garlic cloves, minced, and sauté for another minute—just long enough to cook the garlic slightly. Mash the garlic and the bread together with a spoon.
Add a 28-ounce can of peeled whole tomatoes, one teaspoon paprika, one bay leaf, four cups chicken stock, and 1/4 cup sherry. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Separate the yolks from the whites of six eggs. Add three tablespoons of the hot soup to the egg yolks, beating constantly, to temper them. Add egg yolks to the broth and whisk in rapidly until smooth.
Quickly whisk in the unbeaten egg whites until mixed completely. Bring the soup to a boil, remove from heat.
This soup is kind of like bread pudding, but savory, and buoyant. And by the way, with this and all soups at potlucks, don’t pour it on your plate. Go find a bowl, or a cup.
Ask Ari: Keep PEAS on the menu
Q: Dear Ari,
I’m sitting here with my mail-in election ballot, trying to decide if I should vote for an increase in my property taxes, the proceeds of which will go to Missoula schools.
This should be an easy question, right? Even though I don’t have kids of my own, I realize that investing in schools is an investment in the future, and I want to do my part.
Problem is, I’m pissed at the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees for giving such strong consideration to selling the land underneath the PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake.
That the school board could be so blinded by dollar signs is unconscionable, considering the educational resource provided by the PEAS Farm to the many busloads of students who visit every year, not to mention the college students and “at-risk” youth who work the farm all summer.
Will a vote for the ballot measure take some of the financial pressure off school committee and help save the PEAS farm, or should we just vote to cut them off?
A: Dear Farm Fan,
I hear you. But as I suspect you know in your heart, denying funding to the schools won’t solve this problem.
But we elect school board representatives, and we can influence their decisions. One board member in particular, Tom Orr, was quoted last week in the Missoulian as saying, “I see the school district having a very valuable piece of property that’s also attractive for residential development. We need to try and get this thing so it can be sold at a reasonable value for the schools.”
I suggest that you vote in favor of the extra funding, and send a polite note to Orr. Just like we need well-funded schools, Missoula needs opportunities for hands-on learning. The PEAS Farm doesn’t just feed people, it teaches people how to feed people. And that’s worth more than gold.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.