Demystifying Potluck


Credit: Luke Jones

You must have used the word “potluck” and joined one yourself numerous times; it is a no-brainer. Almost everyone did, you know what the word “potluck” means?

If you are invited to a party and you’re told it’s a potluck, what are you expected to do? Bring a dish, of course.  So, why is a party or an impromptu gathering call for a “potluck”?

How the Term was Coined

The Straight Dope in the post What’s the origin of “potluck”? writes, “The current usage would lead one to associate it with the potlatch of Native Americans of the northwest, but the true origin is in the Middle Ages, in Europe.The potlatch was a big celebration — often the host would give all his possessions away. The modern notion of bringing dishes to share (in essence, giving away what you have) seems like a natural extension of this idea.”

The practice can be traced all the way up the medieval times when preserving food was a long, tedious process. Potluck is said to be done in the spirit of saving food, or not throwing any leftover.  So, leftovers are put in a pot to be kept warm and shared with others who come on short notice. It was often practiced in places such as inns and taverns. When a person shows up, the person is said to take the “luck of pot.”

The phrase “found its way into French usage, as an impromptu meal at home is often referred to as pot au feu, literally “pot on the fire.”

The Straight also suggested the word may be a derivative of the term “potboiler.”  It is said to be a “…specimen of hack literature, generally produced quickly using recycled situations and characters to bring in some cash and keep the author’s pot boiling.” shares its views in the blog What is potluck?

“The story behind this word is that in olden days it was customary for a housewife to keep a pot on the fire into which all scraps of meat and vegetables were thrown. She kept the pot boiling all day. Stew was always available when hungry family members or neighbors just stopped in. Even though the stew was always available, what it tasted like was a matter of “potluck.”

Thus, “potluck” is a communal eating where each person bring their own meal still called “potluck” to be shared with the rest of the people in the gathering. Wikipedia says the term has been used since the 16th century in England to mean “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.” The word came much later in the late 19th or early 20th century in the United States. In the United States, it is associated with casseroles, crockpot dishes, Jello salads and dessert bars.

In Ireland, potluck means a gathering where women cook dinner together. There is just one pot to use, so every ingredient available is thrown in. These informal gatherings dinners are generally organized by communities or religious organizations.

What Would You Bring to a Potluck

For potlucks, you can bring anything from main courses and pasta/noodles to sweet desserts. The more important thing is to bring a large dish that can be shared by a good number of the attendees, but not every guest.

If you were to bring a potluck to a potluck event, what would it be? It can be anything. A good choice would be the so called “crowd pleasers.” These are dishes that can be easily prepared, even in big batches. It may also be something that people generally like. According to Taste of Home, the Top 10 Potluck Recipes include:

  1. Sloppy Joes for 8 Dozen
  2. Appetizer Tortilla Pinwheels
  3. Crowd-Pleasing Taco Salad
  4. Crowd Chicken Casserole
  5. Salsa for a Crowd
  6. Cheesy Shell Lasagna
  7. Potluck Baked Beans
  8. Potluck Banana Cake.

If you are looking for a recipe for your next potluck, think comfort food. Taste of Home also shares its Potluck Recipe Collections. There must be something here that will delight your taste buds and the others. Bon appetite!

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