By Joline Godfrey
My mother loved a good potluck supper.
When I was 9, we lived on York Street, a small Leave It to Beaver street in central Maine where children played in packs and were subject to the collective discipline of everyone’s mother and father. Though my mother was not sophisticated about the politics of the collective, she understood the benefits. A half dozen moms keeping “an eye out” was one; the potluck supper was another.
The mothers (all young women in their late 20s and 30s, which seems shocking now) relied on one another to get through the tedium and hard work of keeping their families going. They got by with verve. May Day was celebrated by leaving small baskets of goodies on one another’s steps. Decorating and figuring out what each basket would contain took up weeks of secret crafting with ribbon and crepe paper. St. Valentine’s Day arrived with a stack of homemade cards in each family’s mailbox; Christmas included a “Yankee Swap” with all thE neighbors.
And a few times a month, five or six families shared a meal, each one showing up with a casserole or a dessert. I’d like to think those dinners were completely spontaneous, eccentric dinners shaped by luck. But knowing my mother, I suspect that one function of the telephone “party line” in those days was sorting out meat, veggie and dessert ratios to make sure there was enough of everything to go around.
Memories of those childhood dinners surfaced this past year as a small group of friends shared potluck and support of one our own while she endured difficult medical treatments. Happily, the treatments are now over, but not our dinners. And while she is well on the road to recovery, we decided the pleasures of the potluck should not be abandoned. So we still gather to share dishes and stories, time and lives.
Potluck is the ultimate community builder. We don’t email in our dishes or tweet conversation over plates piled with one another’s contributions. Knowing we will move one house to another as months go by is a compact, a way of saying we will show up for one another. And part of the fun is the surprise. Who knew that one of our members makes the most breathtaking ice cream; another bakes artisan bread more in the spirit of Rome than Ventura; and another has a way with spices that tickle the palate no matter the
But potluck is not just about the chance to show off culinary skills. Some of the bestloved dishes at every potluck are basic comfort foods—mac and cheese, green beans, lentils and rice. What matters is time spent and the interest accrued and banked in friendship after a few seasons of potluck with a group of friends. In fact, potlucks are a perfect solution for the noncook. In 1999, Sue Maden, a self-professed noncook, was looking for a way to show gratitude to friends who had invited her to multiple dinners after the death of her husband. In a stroke of genius she invented a “Save the Best For Last” potluck. Held on The Saturday after Thanksgiving, she gave friends a chance to share their leftovers. Over a decade later, the dinner has become an annual event and 75 people are now on what has become most the most desired invitation list of the year in Jamestown, Rhode Island.
If you’re lucky enough get invited to a potluck (or wise enough to organize one soon), I recommend making a dish from In Late Winter We Ate Pears: A Year of Hunger and Love, by Deidre Heekin and Caleb Barber. Though not exactly a cookbook, the memoir of a year in Italy is well supported by a fine collection of recipes. A Tuscan-style roast chicken, Florentine bean soup and apple cake recipes are all wonderful and the dishes are easy to transport—key to choosing good contributions for the potluck table. The authors’ commentary has a light and lovely tone. Describing the making of bread, they remind the reader that “You must be patient … most of the time making bread involves waiting For the yeasts in the dough to do their job … so while you are waiting you can do every baker’s favorite thing—take a nap.” I like this kind of encouragement. I’m not sure the hunger and love are as well described
as the meals, but it’s still a book worth having
Another “Year” book, a little closer to home, is The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year in the Life of a Restaurant. This book captures the voices of the three owners and generously features many of the people who make the restaurant a success. And the recipes are terrific. (Please, if you come to one of my potlucks, bring the Meyer Lemon Bars described on page 22.) This book makes me want to head for Big Sur right after breakfast, but can I just say that the device of “a year in…” is getting a little stale? I’m ready for the wisdom that comes from “a decade in the life of …”
I envision the blossoming of a potluck movement. Whether small (a few neighbors sharing an impromptu meal) or massive (Main Street filled with dishes for everyone to share)—potlucks have a civilizing effect. And it’s so easy. Set a night and a location. Whoever can come, will. (Don’t fuss with dates too much or you’ll never get it off the ground. There is no “good” time.) Ask who wants to bring what, and don’t be shy about assigning dishes. Though frozen dinners should be verboten, a potato salad from a good deli is not. And don’t get carried away with setting the table, place settings, linens, etc. Put the dishes on the table along with plates, forks, knives, etc. and let the crowd at it.
Here’s one of my own go-to potluck recipes: lamb shanks slowcooked through the day, offering the side benefit of kitchen aromatherapy.
Slow-Cooked Lamb Shanks
For six, buy at least one lamb shank per person and have the butcher cut it in pieces (two or three to the bone). I like to brown mine in a skillet first, but I’m not convinced it’s absolutely necessary. In your slow cooker or casserole (a slow oven of 250°) place the following:
• 1 chopped onion and 3 or 4 chopped garlic cloves
Once these ingredients are in, I often add some combination of cumin, cinnamon and/or cloves and ginger. This is jazz—let your cooking muse guide you. Now place the lamb shanks on top of the other ingredients, cover and leave it alone for 5 or 6 hours. It’s done when the meat is falling off the bones.
But this is just my version, there are hundreds of ways to prepare lamb shanks and a quick search of a few cool blogs may inspire you. I especially like the blog Big Flavors from a Small Kitchen and the recipe offered there is worth trying (http://bigflavors.blogspot.com/2009/11/lamb-shanks-braised-with-tomato.html). There’s also a helpful photo if you have no idea what a lamb shank is. And a lovely Mediterranean variation can be found at the Pity in the Kitchen blog
Joline Godfrey lives in Ojai, is CEO of Independent Means Inc., has made dinner parties for friends an avocation and can be reached at email@example.com.