This I Believe

Debra - San Francisco, California
Entered on June 12, 2007

I believe in potlucks. The pasta primavera, saag paneer, coconut cream pie all on one table kind. The old college roommate, coworker, and down the street neighbor all in one room kind. The kind where half the guests are holding drinks in champagne glasses the host inherited from her grandmother, half are holding paper cups, and no one seems to know the difference.

Potlucks prove the peanut butter and banana sandwich theory, devised by a friend of mine who enjoys cooking. When preparing experimental dishes, it contends, you need only be concerned with the quality of the separate ingredients, not with whether they normally appear together in recipes. At a potluck, the Libertarian corporate executive and the socialist community activist may strike up a conversation and figure out that they both climbed Mt. Hood in June ’97 and both got drenched in the same thunderstorm. They may even plan to go on a local hike together the following weekend (barring a rainy forecast).

The “small world” phenomenon our hypothetical hikers encountered has played out magically at potlucks I’ve hosted. My favorite episode occurred when one friend figured out she’d been invited by a date to the wedding of another set of friends the previous year. Though she’d decided the guy wasn’t for her and skipped the wedding, she struck up a very solid friendship with the couple. Now more than a year following the potluck, the three are close confidants.

Perhaps their meeting was fated, but I like to think the potluck venue and the license it gives people to explore connections – professional, historical, philosophical, lifestyle –serves as a space for spontaneous community building. The model fulfills one of the most beautiful aspects of the concept of community – each of its participants has made a contribution. As a result, potluckers tend to share a sense of ownership and responsibility and, consequently, anticipate and satisfy the event’s needs, from washing dishes to reorganizing the food table. At its best, the model works so well that if there are enough attendees, the host doesn’t have to do any planning. Instead s/he can be confident that the table will fill with a roughly equal number of appetizers and desserts, main dishes and sides. The community “assets” naturally balance out. And when they don’t, the community adjusts. At every single potluck I’ve attended, people have managed to cut the pie into smaller slices when there was a shortage of desserts and load their food into cups when the plates ran out.

At the end of each potluck, I’m always left pondering what a better society we’d have if we were driven by the core values behind potlucks rather than by individualism. In reality, potlucks don’t contradict our natural tendencies, they confirm them, proving that we are exquisitely capable of working cooperatively and engaging fully with our community. Potlucks offer a chance to tap into our best instincts and, hopefully, apply them in our daily lives. So when will your next potluck be?