The definition of potluck in my Webster’s dictionary does not agree with my own. The dictionary says potluck is “the meal available to a guest for whom no special preparations have been made.”
This implies a dining context in which the host serves the guest—not surprising, considering that the custom of feeding one’s guest is as old and widespread as any.
In the context of Webster’s definition, the word potluck would be appropriate in a sentence like “It’s getting late, would you like to stay for dinner? You’ll have to take potluck.” In other words, perhaps we may have to pull out some leftovers or prepare extra dishes, but we would happily feed you, our unexpected guest.
Perhaps this context is where my sense of the spontaneous, anything-goes meaning of the word potluck comes from. In my world, you don’t know what’s going to happen at a potluck. That’s part of the fun.
I think of potluck as a collaborative dinner party, with a delicious sense of the unexpected. The guests share hosting responsibilities by donating food, wine and dishwashing services. Making the host’s job easier (and cheaper) increases the likelihood that such parties will occur, and everybody is a winner.
Back in my Webster’s, above the word potluck, is the word potlatch, defined as “a ceremonial feast of the Indians of the northwest coast, marked by the host’s lavish distribution of gifts requiring reciprocation.”
In this context, guests would be wined and dined by the host. I’m not sure about who did the dishes, but I do know that potlatches went on for days or even weeks, and the guests were not only given food and libations, but also gifts: blankets, weapons, food and clothing.
Part of the function of the potlatch was to serve as a means of redistributing wealth in society. Those who gave the most got the most status. It’s a good system, really. We would do well to emulate it.
And there is this business in the potlatch definition about “gifts requiring reciprocation.” Indeed, the next time one of your potlatch guests decided to host his own potlatch, you could be sure that the gifts he chose to give you were proportional to the gifts he received at your potlatch.
So, my own definition of potluck is somewhere between Webster’s definitions for potluck and potlatch. It combines the spontaneous nature of one with the inclusive, community-based food-party flavor of the other.
Incidentally, in my Webster’s, the one definition separating potlatch from potluck is potliquor, defined as “the liquid left in a pot after cooking.” Somehow, this seems significant.
Last week, I had a potluck for the students in my Cuba class. We are studying the agricultural system of Cuba in preparation for our trip there in January. For 20 days we will travel together in close quarters. My potluck was an icebreaker of sorts, the first of many meals we will share, a test of our group dynamic.
The spirit of potluck was alive and well that evening. Jennings showed up with a big jar of mojitos; Bradley fried plaintains and wrapped them around refried beans; La-Regs brought something from work; Bisho called to ask if we needed anything, just as Thurston remembered that she’d forgotten the corn chips to go with her salsa. It was cosmic.
I followed a recipe I got from www.icubanguys.com/3guys/. This is a great website, run by three Cuban brothers-in-law who go by “Three Guys from Miami.” The recipe I poached, for Garlic Soup, was a revelation.
Sopa de Ajo (Garlic Soup)
Ingredients: 3 tablespoons olive oil; 6 slices cubed bread; 12 garlic cloves, minced; 1 28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes, drained and chopped; 1 teaspoon paprika; 1 bay leaf; 4 cups soup stock; 6 eggs, yolks and whites separated; parsley; salt and pepper.
Sauté cubes of bread in hot oil in a pot until they begin to brown. Stir in minced garlic and sauté for another minute—just long enough to cook the garlic slightly. Mash the garlic and the bread together with a spoon.
Add tomatoes, paprika, bay leaf, chicken broth and sherry. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour. Salt and pepper to taste.
Separate the eggs, add three tablespoons of the hot broth 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. Garnish with parsley and serve.
This soup is unlike anything I had ever experienced. It’s like bread pudding, but savory, and so light it’s buoyant. I was a pot-licker that night, I’ll tell you what.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org