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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Potluck originally meant no more than taking your chances with whatever was available from the pot on the fire, but has been extended in N. America to describe a meal to which each participant contributes a dish. It has often been presumed the word, perhaps because of its current meaning, derived from potlatch but it is much older than that. The Protestant churches of N. America were pioneers of potluck meals. Eating together encouraged a sense of group identity, kept men and boys from the temptations of liquor and street life, raised funds, and acted as a marriage mart. The potluck principle spread the labour fairly. They were not invariably called potluck: in the East they might be ‘covered dish suppers’, in the West, ‘basket meals’. Structure might be imposed by suggesting one group bring casseroles, another salads or desserts, as in Garrison Keillor’s fantasy of a Lutheran Airlines flight where rows 1–10 brought the one, and rows 11–25 supplied the other. Spaghetti bolognese, Chop suey, Tuna hotdish are typical casserole favourites. From churches, the practice has spread to many other groups, and even to private individuals celebrating, for instance, a housewarming. In Europe, early picnics and the Swedish smörgåsbord were organized on potluck lines.