Potluck : Do You Feel Lucky?


No question about it, we’re in a recession. Here’s one way to tell: Suddenly people aren’t inviting you to dinner parties so much. They’re inviting you to potlucks.

When it comes to potlucks, everybody wants to talk about the pot. The food, that is--how cheap and convenient a party can be when no one person has to do all the cooking. But for a change, let’s talk about luck.

The original expression “taking pot luck” meant eating whatever was on a family’s dinner table when you happened to drop in on them. There were no two ways about it--you took whatever chance decreed was in the pot. Later on, the potluck party was invented, and it was basically similar: You brought the kind of thing you might be eating at home.


These days, though, some people organize potlucks and then call everybody up to make sure there aren’t any holes or overlaps in the menu. That’s just plain cheating. Where’s the luck in that?

We need to experience chance, we need to confront the unexpected. Why else do we play cards or ride roller coasters? Why does anybody ever go skiing?

The reason is simply that the rational modern world no longer provides the daily quota of random catastrophe that made the Middle Ages so entertaining. Of course, we don’t want to be entertained that way all the time, thank you, or we’d eat potluck every night and then all ski home.

But when everybody turns out to bring either crudites or sesame sticks to a potluck, or it develops that half the dishes are desserts made with baby marshmallows, we rediscover the meaning of life--or anyway, of life a long time ago, before either Julia Child or convenience shopping. We re-create the elemental tribal group; we face life in the raw; we look starvation straight in the eye and all pull together.

In short, we send somebody off to a delicatessen. A small price to pay for being able to tell our grandchildren a tale that begins:

“You kids today have no idea what it was like in the Recession of the ‘90s. In those days, we had potlucks.”