The Evolution of the Potluck

Over the past few decades, I’ve been a part of potlucks in a wide variety of roles. When I was a little kid, we’d go to potlucks for groups my mother was a part of. She would enlist me to help with making the dish to pass, and I’d instantly lobby for a dessert. Brownies…the ones with peanut butter mixed in? No. Black-Bottomed Cupcakes? No. After what likely amounted to dozens of opportunities for the creation of what could have been rather epic desserts, I finally resigned myself. “We have to bring a salad,” my mother would say. “If I don’t bring something green for the table, there will be nothing healthy to choose from at all.” *sigh* She wasn’t wrong.

As I grew into adulthood I found many opportunities of my own for inventing potluck dishes to pass. Sometimes I’d heed my mother’s advice and bring the healthy option. More often, I’d be the bearer of all things made of sugar and bring cupcakes, brownies, or cheesecake bites. There came a point in time that groups I worked with would create the “dish to pass” sign-up sheet and automatically fill my name in for bringing dessert. This is how my kids grew up…bringing the sweet treats to school potlucks rather than the healthy greens. My mother would say to my kids, “I tried with your mother, but clearly I failed,” and click her tongue at me in disapproval.

My daughter began making potluck selections that deviated from desserts, somewhere in the high school years. She’d help me make things for band potlucks, sometimes homemade macaroni and cheese, other times we’d bring the toppings for tacos. She was my prep cook, always there to slice things or to run to the store when an ingredient was missing. Even at my epic birthday party this past spring, she came home to both celebrate and to resume her spot in my kitchen as a top notch prep cook, slicing tomatoes and carefully putting together Cuban Sandwich Skewers for the platter.

However, summer is waning now, and the tides have turned for both my daughter and me as she readies herself to begin graduate school. After spending the past few days exploring her new city together, painting pottery, perusing independent bookstores, visiting the Science Center, “going through” after High Tea at the O. Henry Hotel, sharing drinks at the local Southern whiskey bars, hiking on old Revolutionary battlegrounds, and sitting for a sweltering afternoon chat on a bench near the campus belltower, it has come time for her to meet the department. At a potluck.

“What are you going to bring?” I asked her. We cracked jokes about her Nana bringing salads everywhere she went. We joked about the first impressions that will come as a result of what she chooses to bring. Perhaps the most entertaining comment came when she said (quite seriously), “You know, this grad school thing is so ‘adult.’ In undergrad, I would have been invited to a Welcome Party and all of the food would have been made for us. Now I have to actually be a part of the whole party planning process…”

Yes. Yes, you do.

And so she selected her favorite dish, one that she is fantastic at preparing. We made it together this afternoon. She started rummaging in her kitchen; always a sign that cooking will commence. I closed the book I am reading and stood to stretch. “Are you wanting to help?” she asked me, though I heard my own tone within the question and realized that it was not actually a choice. She had the potatoes peeled, set out to the side. “You could slice the potatoes. They need to be very thin. That would be really helpful while I make the cheese sauce.” Dutifully, I began slicing. “Is this thin enough?” I asked, to which she replied, “Maybe just a little bit thinner.”

Thinner it is. As she stirred the cheese sauce on the stove behind me, I heard a giggle. “Yes?” I prompted her, not sure where she was finding humor, but curious nonetheless. She giggled again, then explained. “It’s just…that’s what I always do. Slice the things.” She turned to me with such bright eyes I couldn’t help but laugh along with her, and she trumped her own comment by adding, “My kitchen…you’re doing the slicing.”

And as she turned back to stir the cheese sauce, still cracking herself up, my heart filled with radiant pride.

Click here for the Grad School Cheesy Potato recipe

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