Friday, September 7, 2012

Tangled Pot-Luck

Growing up as a preacher's kid, I've had more than my fair share of opportunity to attend pot-lucks all over the world. Pot-lucks, covered dish suppers, pitch-ins, whatever you want to call them, the concept is the same: everyone brings a dish to share and everyone eats. Nowadays people are more savvy about it and break up last names by letter of the alphabet and specify what kind of dish to bring, so we don't end up with too much Jell-O salad, but when I was a kid this did not appear to be the case.

Some places we lived, people took pride in their home cooking and pot-lucks were a gastronomic wonderland of simple, yet delicious foods and there just wasn't enough room on your plate. Other places we lived, it meant half the congregation stopped at KFC or Little Caesar's and got take out. In China, people brought whatever they had - a coveted bottle of Coke, a bag of fresh grapes, oranges (there were always oranges!), barbecued chicken feet, whatever. Some places we lived, my definition of "food" appeared to be different than that of some of the cooks. The only time I have ever in my life had food in my mouth that I just couldn't swallow was at a pot-luck where some very old socks were masquerading as green beans.

You learn the tricks of the trade: if it's got enough cheese on top, you can probably eat it; that "Famous Taco Salad" has not hot sauce on it, but FRENCH DRESSING, so warn your taste buds in advance; nothing, I repeat: nothing, encased in Jell-O retains its flavor or texture; beat the kids to the dessert table; avoid anything with tuna, especially hot tuna.

If you learn to follow your own simple guidelines, pot-lucks can be tolerable, even joyous affairs.

When the Chief Lou and I got married, I was appalled at his pot-luck behavior. He broke all of the cardinal rules of pot-lucks. He snubbed the potato and cheese casserole with the cornflakes on top and went straight for the fried chicken. He ate that mess with the scary pot-luck trifecta of Jell-O, Cool Whip and canned fruit. He passed over the fresh veggies and ranch dip in favor of the store-bought cupcakes with Day-Glo gobs of icing on top. Clearly, being raised a heathen, he didn't know about these things.

I have been sitting on my hands for the last few days to avoid posting in any public way about our nation's political process. Anything I would have to say about the specifics of anything is going to appease the people who agree with me and outrage those who don't. That kind of communication feels dishonest to me and there are any number of people out there who have already said it and said it better, so go read them. I want to think about pot-lucks. I want to write about casseroles and canned cream of mushroom soup. Does anyone ever actually make soup out of those cans? I think not. When I was a kid, I used to think those little gray mushrooms were boogers. I might still think that.

So, this particular nation takes pride in calling itself a melting-pot. (Mmmm. Fondue. Why can't it be 1973 so we can all hang out in groovy polyester and eat fondue and put our car keys in a bowl? I digress.) I think we're more of a pot-luck. Everyone brings their covered dish to the table. There's that one lady who brings that same casserole every time because she thinks everyone loves it when we all just quietly scrape our portions into the trash when no one is looking because we don't want to hurt her feelings because she's half-senile anyway. There's the guy who always, always, always brings whatever the grocery store deli has on sale that particular day, so it's hit or miss whether you want to eat it. There's the one woman who makes the most amazing salads and you have to get in line first or it will be all gone. There are the mystery dishes that look like one thing and taste like another: oh look, they put Miracle Whip in the chicken salad, I was not expecting a mouthful of cloying sweetness and chicken. There are the super creative dishes, the old standbys, the vile and frightening, the surprisingly delicious, and the "I'll eat it because I'm starving and there's nothing else" ones.

Here's the thing about pot-lucks: we don't go to them for the food, really. We go for the association, the sharing of a meal, the convivial choking down of casseroles. We all have our favorites, our distinct palates, our untouchable items, the things we have to spit into our napkins. But for each of us, those are different things.

I would not touch pot-luck fried chicken with a cattle prod. The Chief Lou eats as much as he can if it's there. I am especially fond of the cheesy potato casserole, the Chief Lou thinks it's a textural nightmare. And I hate him for it. Oh wait, no. I don't. That would be a silly reason to hate someone, wouldn't it? For expressing a preference? Well, I don't hate him, but I stand up and loudly complain that he's an idiot for not seeing the merits of cheesy potato casserole and he's probably a Nazi or a fascist or a baby killer or a socialist or something. Yes, that makes for some fun pot-lucks, doesn't it? Of course I wouldn't do that. That would be a level of obnoxiousness that even I have yet to achieve. No, what I really do is walk around gasping because people are clogging their arteries! eating small dead animals! there are horses hooves in the Jell-O! they don't even know what that is and they're eating it! It's bad for them! No one should ever eat that much canned soup and American cheese in one sitting! Also, obnoxious. Obviously.

So, every few years we pull ourselves up to the democratic table and everyone takes the tin foil off of what they brought and it's horrifying. It's disgusting and unhealthy and there are boogers - boogers, I tell you! - in most of it! And you have to watch people masticate, and listen to their conversations muffled by mouthfuls of what you thought was mayonnaise but is actually Miracle Whip (blech!), and you get to discover that someone for whom you previously had a lot of respect just ate fifteen cookies and a pile of mashed potatoes for lunch and you wonder how you'll ever be able to look at these people again. But then...

But then you look at your own plate. It was you who took all of the carrots off the veggie platter and didn't leave any for anyone else. You are letting a glob of dripping barbecued something run all over into your Asian cole slaw with the uncooked Ramen in it. You have taken a large dinner roll to conceal the fact that you have three helpings of that oddly fascinating French Dressing Taco Salad. You know it's the only time you would ever eat a dessert concocted from instant pudding and Chips Ahoy, but bless it, it's tasty in a way you'd never admit publicly. And you realize as you're looking at your plate that this isn't exactly an accurate representation of your diet. It's not full of your favorite things, nor is it completely balanced, but it works for now.

But look up from the plates now, it's not about the food. It's about this disgusting, belching, tooth-picking group of people. Our comrades, neighbors, our fellow citizens, coming together to participate in a shared something. Sure, if we think about it too much it makes us gag a little bit, but I guarantee, someone else is looking at your plate and gagging, too. Heck, I gag on half the things I try at a pot-luck, but that's part of the fun, isn't it? To taste how other people cook, to try out what other people think is delicious, to get a glimpse of what it might feel like to eat dinner at their house every day? Sometimes we taste and say "No thank you." Sometimes we can't even swallow it. Sometimes we are deliciously surprised. Sometimes we know which ones are "safe" and stick with those. Those are all different things to different people. That's what makes pot-lucks so great. A little something for everyone. But we're all sharing this meal together. Don't talk with your mouth full. Nobody wants to see that.

If it all becomes too intolerable and you can't find the joy in it, just remember these two simple things:
1. If you sit quietly and avert your eyes, the pot luck will end and people will soon go and watch football or take a nap.
2. Be glad you aren't in China, where someone always brings barbecued chicken feet.


  1. Wow, interesting . . . very interesting. I'm not really crazy about pot lucks, but our church does them once in a while. I make fabulous cheesy "funeral" potatoes -- even though your husband would probably not think so. I try not to eat anything that . . . well, I try not to eat ANYTHING, but look like I'm enjoying everything. But I really really appreciate people for their generosity in bringing their own special dish to the table, and I try to be polite and gracious. And hope we can all just get along :)

    1. Exactly Judy, exactly.
      And I would eat ALL of your "funeral potatoes" because those are awesome.

  2. Oh I know pot-lucks. Very well. Thankfully, I've never seen barbecued chicken feet at the table ... I have seen unbaked sour-dough in soup before. .. kinda hard to chew and swallow but tame compared to bbq chicken feet.

    Brilliant how you handled a political post, TangledLou.

    And I agree. Nobody should ever make soup out of those cans .. I've never liked them, but now my view of them has been cemented. Forever.

    1. I mean, have you ever actually seen canned cream of mushroom soup made up into a soup following the directions on the can? Have you ever eaten it other than in a casserole? Neither have I.

    2. I have! I have! And I am HORRIFIED every time. My husband does, in fact, eat canned condensed cream of mushroom soup (reconstituted with milk) as a soup. Twenty-five years of trying to convince him that this is aberrant behavior has so far been unsuccessful.

    3. Aaaaarrrrghhhh! Booger soup! Booger soup!

    4. Perhaps if I henceforth refer to it solely as booger soup, I can get Hubby to stop indulging in it. Heh.

  3. Potlucks, I know them well. My step-dad was a preacher, and my sisters and I became adept at knowing what to gorge ourselves on and what to avoid at all cost. We never eat the jello due to a lingering fear of vegetables in jello molds and we know for a fact that moose and caribou meat DO NOT taste just like beef and we were adults before we understood that taco salad could be good (if you leave off that sweet dressing). Potlucks are also the reason my sisters and I have some serious food issues with people taking more than their fair's not very adult of us, but we would count out olives and pickle spears if we were allowed!

    I do like the parallels between potlucks and politics!

    1. Haaaa! I love this. You understand about that taco salad! I find myself secretly monitoring pickle spears myself... it's one of the grosser sides of pot-lucks, watching people hog all the good stuff.

  4. I don't like potlucks. period. Never have, even as a kid. I will attend if I have to and I will visit with people. I will avoid eating anything but sometimes I will take a plate and put green salad sans dressing on it just to look like I am doing what I am supposed to do. I will bring something but it will be some kind of beverage or some maybe that salad that I will eat myself. It's not that I don't like people. It's that, because of some health issues and my own eating tastes, I choose not to eat random things that people bring to share.
    I am dense though. I don't get the connection to politics. I can't compare items at a pot luck to personal choices involving the most intimate of decisions: whom you marry, whether you practice contraception, the choices you make about your own body. I don't get how pot luck choices compare to huge financial institutions and corporations ripping less wealthy people off. And are pot luck choices tied to health care for all people and not just those of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs with benefits?
    Maybe it's b/c it's Friday night and I am tired. Maybe it's b/c the current political climate discourages me. Yes, I am a bleeding heart liberal, through and through. But I am a thoughtful person as well. I work with disenfranchised families. I can't see why we, as fellow Earthlings, can't separate religion from politics? and can't be willing to help care for the least fortunate among us?

    1. Gracie - I agree with you on all of these things, I really do. I poke fun with casseroles because it hurts too much to let all of that all the way in. I would be a quivering mass all the time if I let it all get to me.

      Your last two questions speak straight to the point of this, but I didn't want to tout my own political views. I know people who believe very strongly, just as strongly as you do, that it is frightening and discouraging for our country's leaders to make decisions that are immoral, that there are different ways to care for the less fortunate. Should we hate them for that? Because they see different solutions to the same problems? Should we villainize them for acting within the confines of their own faith?

      When it's an election year, everyone goes into high gear with the rhetoric and the divisive language and objectifying the other side until they are no longer "fellow Earthlings" but monsters who want to the rob them of the life they deserve. This is not discourse. Constant conflict and lack of honest discussion will not get anything done and then everyone loses.

      I guess my silly pot luck is about stepping back and realizing that none of us are right all the time about everything, we're all in this together, and the people with whom we disagree politically are just that: people. Real people with real feelings and real preferences that are every bit as valid (or invalid) as our own.

    2. And you, TL, are good at poking fun. I wish I could poke fun at politics. I can be silly and very playful but when it comes to politics, I am just too f---ing serious. I am too passionate about these things and I am not proud of that. I try to be open but not when I have friends and coworkers who want to marry their life long partner but can't - oh, because of gender-- I get angry. Oh, don't get me started - I will only damage myself. Greed? Power? control? Yup religion, politics - they DO share some things........

      And people can have their own preferences but why must they impose them on others? If you don't want to practice contraception, then don't! If you don't' support gay marriage, then don't marry a gay person! I have to stop.

    3. Exactly. Bless you and your passion, Gracie!

  5. Brilliant. Between your words and those who commented before me, this is fabulous stuff.

    And Hubs is a preacher's kid too. WHY AM I SURROUNDED BY ALL THESE PKs?! :-)

  6. I live in a decidedly anti-potluck community. Southsiders bring cases of beer to everything. My husband looked horrified when some northsiders invited us to a potluck dinner. I tried to sell him on it, but we was all like "what is wrong with the world today?" I think I might show him your post to explain things. Brilliant as always!

    1. I dunno, Marianne. It may just confuse him more...
      We have pot-lucks occasionally for the kids' schools here and they are a frightening affair and my husband always drags his feet and complains and then says "Can you at least bring something good so I don't have to just eat fifty different kinds of tofu?!"

  7. As always, I love your vivid imagery and the unexpected connections you make between things. I love the way your mind and (more importantly) your heart works and the way you're willing to put them both out there.

    The pot-luck analogy works well when it comes to the ideals of civilized political discourse and the joys, frustrations, and necessities of living together as a nation in all our messy diversity. Civilized political discourse, an honest and sane exchange of thoughts and ideas, is a beautiful ideal to which we should all aspire.

    The problem, of course, is that in the non-metaphorical, real-life version of this pot-luck, there are people showing up with empty hands and full stomachs but with an insatiable hunger--they are not satisfied with their own shares at the table, they are not satisfied without taking from others as well. They seek not only to gorge themselves, but to dictate to others what we will be permitted to choose from the table. They want some of us, because of our gender, or the color of our skin, or our sexual orientation, or our religious preferences (or lack thereof) to have only hot tuna and canned fruit suspended in neon Jello. Or nothing at all.

    We are all in this together. I believe that in every molecule of my being, but there are so many (with so much power and so many resources) who do not see it that way. Not to indulge in the divisive rhetoric you were trying nobly to avoid, but I worry about what those people are doing while we're sitting back appreciating the community and fellowship with damp paper plates in our laps.

    I know you know this. I know you were taking the high road. How's the view from up there? ;)

    1. You know I agree with all of this. I love your imagery, too. My thoughts in writing this ran more along both very personal and universal lines. It is my wish-fulfillment at work. It is my "why can't we all get along?!" saw.

      On a personal level, over recent months I have seen people confuse the decisions of leaders with the beliefs of individuals. I have seen individuals attacked for collective beliefs and for stereotypical assumptions. The green beans of nuance and understanding have been cooked to a mush. So we see statements like: "Obama and all of his mindless supporters..." and the like coming from otherwise nice people who are just picking up food and flinging it without much critical thought. This is happening on both sides. That's not discourse. It's barely human. Campaign strategists know this about us and add fuel to the fires. And then discussion becomes about how much we hate other people and not about the very real problems and issues at stake.
      On a universal level, we are so extremely blessed to live in a nation where we all get to participate in the process. Where we are allowed to have ideas and to express them. The very idea that we get to vote and those votes are (usually) counted and honored is amazing and precious. Yes, it allows for tomfoolery and jackassery all around, but it eventually rises above that and it has held up for a couple of centuries now. This country has seen its share of truly frightening, threatening times throughout its history. I think we may be living in one now, too. But as a country we've survived so much, and democracy is something we should never take for granted. I get so grossed out by the taking this for granted. That's my hot tuna.
      We have an opportunity in this country that people in other countries literally die for, and for the most part it seems we spend it flinging food at each other and standing with our fingers shoved in our ears hollering as loud as we can. It makes me lose my appetite.

      I can only reach for the high road. I, personally, have no alternative. It's easier for me to try and parse the whole mess out when I boil it down to people. I don't have to agree with them, I don't have to even like them, but I don't have to hate them and dehumanize them and insult them either. I realize this is only one simple ingredient in a large and complicated casserole, but I just can't swallow the whole thing at once. There are boogers in it!

    2. I think a key part of why our system has held up for hundreds of years in spite of no shortage of tomfoolery and jackassery (and plenty of food-flinging and ear-plugged hollering) is because always, eventually, most of us do boil it down to people. It's so much harder to think in generalizations and absolutes when sitting at work or in church or at the city park day after day next to a gay man or the daughter of an immigrant or a former welfare recipient or a Republican and finding out, completely unexpectedly and against your will, that they are just decent people trying to do what's best for their family, too. Shallow as it sounds, even finding out that you like the same books or music or '80s television show as someone who was just a statistic to you before can make all the difference, I think. Anything to humanize these "others."

      These things that are going on out there in the world of politics and political commentary and in the nation and world as a whole (particularly economically) are scary and painful and loud. Here's hoping they're just the same sorts of growing pains we've been through before--and what we'll have when they ease up is a more grown-up and healthy version of an already pretty great country.

      (PS--Props for running such a full-service blog site--not just anyone can do politics and boogers with equal skill.)

    3. Growing Pains! There's your 80s television show right there. [Please let us not discuss Kirk Cameron, I'm too tired.] I just adore the humanizing effect of a little Masked Mom. I really feel like I could talk to you for hours. I realize that's kind of Catfish-y and weird, but there it is. I really appreciate you and others taking the time to wade through the boogers and the politics to find the heart of my mad ramblings and then to thoughtfully engage with me on them. It makes my grouchy old man heart happy.

      (PS -- Wasn't there a sometimes character on Growing Pains named Booger? Circle of life, man, circle of life.)

    4. I'm pretty sure there was a Booger on Growing Pains. You know what else there was? On the dining room/kitchen wall, right next to the door from the living room, there was a framed photo of eggs in their shells on (I think) a black background. In the front three eggs had been cracked open and inside one was a yellow yolk, inside the second was a blue yolk and inside the third was a red yolk. I have looked in vain for years (decades!) for a print of that vaguely tacky, heavy-handed wall art.

      Wisdom from the sitcom set: We are all the same; we are all different? We are all hard-shelled with gooey multi-(but only primary-)colored insides?

      The Catfish-y feelings are mutual. And worry not, Kirk Cameron is one '80s star about whom I cannot speak. Doctor's orders.

    5. Damn! Now I know what the problem with me is! Not only have I never watched Growing Pains. Who's Kirk Cameron?


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