Years ago, I loathed potlucks. As a former Manhattanite, I had dined at my fair share of upscale restaurants, thanks to a foodie boyfriend. Having traveled and lived overseas, I’d enjoyed lots of authentic if not exotic cuisine. At some point, I decided that if I were to eat a meal out (in a restaurant or at a gathering), it needed to distinguish itself. A bad meal was a blemish on the day, an awful meal a crime. At a minimum, a mediocre meal was a lost opportunity for a good meal. My palate, although lacking a Ph.D., was educated and discerning enough to be a bit of a snob.
I pooh-poohed communal-style meals, thinking they were second rate, or just the lazy person’s version of a dinner party. What if people brought food I didn’t like or was poorly prepared? What if everyone brought the same thing? I shuddered at the prospect of dinners consisting only of store-bought macaroni salad, drowning in gloppy mayo, with jello for dessert, and at the thought of the people who loved these foods. To avoid an-all macaroni meal, some organizers assign dishes alphabetically, e.g. A-G bring appetizers, H-K salad, L-Q main courses, R-Z drinks and desserts, etc. But what if a person whose last name begins with “T” makes amazing appetizers? Then, if they follow the rule, they might purchase a less than delightful dessert. Multiply that across a group and it might not the best outcome for the taste buds, or the soul, even if the distribution of food is “correct.”
Dinner parties present different conundrums. What to make? Whom to invite? Seating arrangements? I haven’t attended many in my life, or hosted them either. If one reads enough New York Times articles about this topic, one could get the impression that these gatherings, especially in elite circles, are ticking stress bombs. Imaginative food and wine must be served and, in exchange, the carefully selected guests agree to contribute witty and erudite comments sans social gaffes. There are rhythms and protocols. Although highly scripted, the ritual must feel seamless, flowing from cocktails to dinner to coffee and dessert. It’s more performance art than the breaking of bread. If, like me, you were not blessed with the gift of gab, a dinner party might be a nightmare, even with stupendous victuals.
In my spiritual practice, I’m learning to appreciate instead of evaluate, to savor rather than compare. It’s easy to ruin a perfectly good supper by calling up the ghosts of meals past, those tastier/loftier experiences that set an impossible standard. Last night I attended a large potluck, hosted by a creative spirit. The e-mailed instructions were simple: bring anything we wanted, it would all work out. It was a statement of faith that might have freaked me out years ago, when I had a strong bias for detailed planning over spontaneity. As people arrived, the part of my brain that analyzes (like an old software program running in the background), surveyed the à la carte spread: two guests brought hummus and chips, a handful made salads, and two of us fancied the sesame cucumber noodles from Whole Foods. Others contributed crudites, a cold spicy shrimp soup, quinoa salad, an artichoke pasta dish, plus many more. The self-appointed dessert bearers offered homemade chocolate cake, a fruit crumble, plus cookies, mini cinnamon rolls and macaroons. The beverages were similarly diverse. There were even leftovers, suggesting that no one went hungry.
It’s hard to imagine that if a person had flexed her organizational muscles around this event that she would have achieved a better result (however defined) with an equally low amount of stress for all. Maybe if, in the rest of my life, I can keep trusting the luck in potluck, meaning to keep doing things but without overdoing them, appreciative of what others bring to the table, I’ll become a carrot stick closer to enlightenment. Perhaps one day I’ll even stop judging jello, and those who eat it.