There are few social rituals as complex or as American as the potluck. While I had thought that the potluck, as a dining form, was absolutely universal, in discussions with foreign friends, I learned that what we think of as a common way to eat together in a group is more uniquely American than it seemed. As with any word that’s fun to say, the origin of the term is murky at best. The etymologists tend to come down in one of two camps, the English word combo putting ‘pot’ and ‘luck’ together as it showed up in 16th century English writing or the North American indigenous ‘potlach,’ which meant ‘a communal meal.’
Wherever the word came from in the first place, the way we use it today likely originated during the Depression, where families each brought food to a communal meal as a way of alleviating the pressure to provide that would ordinarily be on the host. There are other words to describe what we do now, including covered-dish supper, dish-to-pass, Jacob’s join, dish party, or, my personal favorite, fuddle. There are no hard and fast rules for a potluck, except for the seemingly obvious—that the dish is large enough that all attendees can share it. Any other rules are up to the organizers; sometimes the host will provide a main dish and everyone else brings accompanying items, or there could be a theme to the foods. One of the most unique ones I’ve seen was a color-themed potluck with the fascinatingly challenging choice of yellow.
One of the biggest hallmarks of the office potluck, however, is that people are bringing their A game every time. This isn’t the time to try out a new recipe, or to break out the molecular gastronomy set you got for your birthday. Nobody filling a plate at the event will be looking for a particularly beautiful piece of salmon or a foam of haricots verts. The potluck is the place to put your tried-and-true on display, the recipe you always make for family get-togethers, the one you rarely give out, and only then as an index card passed off to a close friend as though you’re trading state secrets. This is the blue-ribbon recipe, the one you’ve perfected. The one you know is better than everyone else’s potluck offering.
There are a few things that make for the perfect potluck dish. The first, obviously, is quantity. To be a good potluck dish, it can’t run out before everyone’s gotten to try some…and probably some more. A second helping is a compliment not to be taken lightly.
Secondly, it needs to be unique, but not too unique. Some of the favorites you’ll see tend to spin-offs on classics, like a Buffalo wing mac and cheese or brownies with a little extra something, whether that’s dried cherries or the perfect frosting (no, brownie frosting and cake frosting are not the same thing) …or both! A new take on something everyone always knows is always welcome.
Thirdly, food that’s only there for its health benefits need not apply. A potluck is not the time to tout the greenness or secret vegetable content of a dish. Of course it may be healthy, and there can be veggies aplenty—but flavor is the main point, and a certain heartiness that fills more than the belly. Mentioning just how good- for- you a dish is may actually count against it.
High aspirations for any dish, particularly something that must be transported in a Crock Pot and served in a paper bowl. However, that doesn’t stop any home cooks from presenting their best and tastiest dishes at the office potluck, vying for that silent and often unspoken honor—the one with no leftovers to take home.
What’s your go-to dish for a potluck? Comment below! Don’t worry: you don’t have to give us your secret recipe unless you want to!