Potluckin: A little history

I think potters take Potluckin to the next level. Its an opportunity to show off our new designs and hopefully our culinary expertise. My last potluck got me thinking about how this custom came into common practice. First, a recipe that I brought for our last potluck

Spicy Waldorf Chicken Salad- Best served on Garlic Bagel Chips
Makes about 8 servings
Two large cans (8oz) Valley Fresh Canned Chicken
2 tbsp light mayo
1/4 cup raisons
1 large finely chopped Fuji Apple
2 Stalks finely chopped Celery
1 teaspoon Tony Chachere's seasoning or Red pepper flakes if less sodium is desired

The term "potluck" has two meanings; both practices are related and have ancient roots:
1. Taking one's chances with what is being served (in the cooking pot)
---Travelers and other unexpected guests took their chances (luck!) with whatever was being served that night.
2. Community meal composed of food contributions.
---Early societies often pooled food resources for special occasions (weddings, funerals, etc.)

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term "potluck" in print to the 16th century:
"Potluck. One's luck or chance as to what may be in the pot, i.e. cooked for a meal: used in reference to a person accepting another's hospitality at a meal without any special preparation having been made for him; chiefly in phr. to take pot-luck. 1592 Nash Four Lett. Confut. Ded., "That that pure sanguine complexion of yours may never be famisht with pot luck." 

"Take potluck. To take what is offered to you...Unannounced guests who show up at a friend's home at dinnertime are likely to be invited to stay for dinner by are reminded that they will have to take potluck, i.e., to eat whatever the family is eating. This notion of the luck of the pot goes back to Elizabethan times [as evidenced by OED definition above], then an unnanounced guest was invited to share potluck, i.e., the contents of the large cast-iron pot on the hearth, with the rest of the family...This take -your-chances-notion of potluck has developed in modern times into a more general meaning of to take potluck, i.e., to take whatever comes your way-whatever is available at that particular time and place...The surprise-me aspect of potluck has increased with the invention of the potluck supper (late 19th century), to which each invitee is expected to bring a "dish to pass" or a "dish to share"...Such meals are popular at churches, schools, and fund-raisers because they capitalize on individual specialties and minimize individual costs. In some parts of the country a potluck supper is called a covered-dish supper."
---Food: A Dictionary of Literal and Nonliteral Terms, Robert A. Palmatier [Greenwood Press:Westport] 2000 (p. 357) 

"Group meals often involve the contribution of food by the guests themselves: the banqueters are in these cases both hosts and guests. The phrase "pot luck" was originally used when inviting someone to a very informal family dinner, on the spur of the moment. The visitor was to expect nothing specially prepared, but only what the family would have eaten in any case that day. The guest's "luck" lay in what day he or she happened to arrive, and what meal had been prepared for the family. The phrase changed ints meaning with the increasing popualrity of meals or parties where the guests come with contributions of food: the "luck" now lies in the uncertaintly about what everyone will bring. The host can suggest what might be needed, but cannot control the quality of the offering. "Pot luck" dinners in this sense have an ancient history, and exist in some form in most societies on earth. They usually celebrate the intimacy of the guests, or at least the hope that they have a great deal in comon. The host's authority is considerably reduced by means of the arrangement, but the fact remains that the party has to be held somewhere, and the host or hosts remain responsible for the venue, the guest list, even for the possibility of gate-crashers. The success or failure of the party still depends mostly on the "givers" of it. Being expected both to sustain loss of authority, and to retain responsibility, is a peculiarly modern predicament. But the informality gained is so important to su that we are prepared to pay the price; and enough honour still attaches to having the premises, being able to pay for a party (even if the guests haelp and must accept the blame for the food provided), and to knowing the "right" people to ask, that hosts continue to shoulder the burden and risk of inviting people for "pot luck."
---The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners, Margaret Visser [Penguin Books:New York] 1991 (p. 84-5) 

"Potluck. A meal composed of whatever is available or a meal (also called a "carry in" or "covered dish meal") whreby different people bring different dishes to a social gathering. In the West "potluck" meant food brought by a cowboy guest to put in the communal pot."
---The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 254) 

"Potluck. A word used by the cowman and other frontiersmen, for food contributed by a guest. To bring potluck means to bring food with one."
---Western Words: A Dictionary of the American West, Ramon F. Adams, New edition, revised and enlarged [University of Oklahoma Press:Norman] 1968 (p. 234) 

"Potluck meal. Also potluck (dinner), potluck supper, and var. combinations [By ext from potluck the luck of the draw, whatever food is being served] widespread, but less frequently in the South, Central Atlantic, New York. Of covered-dish meal, pitch-in dinner, tureen. A meal to which people bring food to share, usu. without assignment of particular dishes; the food at such a gathering; also adj potluck in the form of such a meal. 1929: AmSp 4.420 [College English] Pot luck-Food contributed by the guest. To take pot luck is to bring food with one to a party. This is a Western usage, unknown in New York and New Jersey." [NOTE: This source contains much many more definitions in different American regions through time. If you are interested in tracing this word, your librarian can help you find a copy.]
---The Dictionary of American Regional English, Joan Houston Hall, ed., Volume IV P-Sk [Belknap Press:Cambridge MA] 2000 (p. 311) 

The earliest references to "pot luck" published in the New York Times infer the term was understood to mean taking one's chances at another's table: General Sam Houston "...dined and taken 'pot luck' with his old enemies, Col. Morgan and Dr. Ashbel Smith'." ["Texas," New York Daily Times, June 8, 1854 (p. 2)]. "Surely it is very pleasant to have so well-furnished a house that it will never be necessary to darken the parlor windows whoever calls, and to set such a table as that we shall not be ashamed to have any visitor suddenly drop in to try pot-luck." ["Save a Little Something," New York Daily Times, April 18, 1855 (p. 4)].
In the last quarter of the 19th century, the contemporary American definition of "pot luck" emerges: participating guests proferring dishes at a common table. The meal described below qualifies as a 'society' event. Of course, more common (less newsworthy) meals most likely were enjoyed as well. In churches, community centers, schools, political gatherings, &c.
"The Pot-Luck Picnic...An Impromptu and Enjoyable Dinner--A Display of Culinary Skill. Last evening, at the Free Trade Club, a dinner was given by Hon. Robert R. Roosevelt to a large number of his friends. Though invitations had been issued for a week previous, the feast was decidedly of an impromptu character as far the viands went. The origin of the dinner was something of this kind: The host having met several; ladies and gentlemen who declared that they were learned in the art of de la gueule, Mr. Roosevelt challenged them to make a display of their culinary ability. The wager was taken up at once, and hence the the dinner. Cards of invitation of an amusing character were isued, onw hich the menu was indicated, with the names of the improvised cooks who were to concoct gumbo, lobster cutlets, plumb pudding, various salads, and coffee. About 50 guests were present...Course followed course in a tumultuous way. Culinary inspriations and cookery nocturnes of all flavors and tastes crowded one another. Anything like system was discarded, and this was thought likely to destry the artistic effects of this pot-luck picnic. Hungry guests were perfectly satisfied with whatever particular dish they happened to find before them...Appetites seemed whetted with the novelty of the banquet...Eating and drinking, laughter and gayety held their sway for a couple of hours...On the propostion of Mrs. Croly, the great success of the Pot-Luck Picnic having been firmly established, the lady insisted that such talent ought not to be forever lost, but that a club shoudl be formed, when similar dinners should be given...This propostiion was accepted by acclamation...Fortune and merit decided that the following ladies and gentlemen should become the high dignitaries of the Potluck Picnic Club..." [New York Times, March 26, 1879, (p. 5)]. 

Safari supper

One variation is the safari supper, where a group of neighbors physically move between different houses for each part of the meal. Typically, this involves the preparation of one course only (a starter, main course or dessert, etc), and visiting different neighbors for the other courses. Although it is a little difficult to explain, and does require careful and complex planning, the idea is relatively straightforward: for example, Neighbor A makes a starter, and is visited by Neighbors B and C. After this, Neighbor A moves to a different house, Neighbor D, and is joined by Neighbor E. Neighbors B and C go on to different houses also, but not the same one. Finally, a similar pattern for dessert: Neighbor A moves to Neighbor F's house, joined by Neighbor G. This style of eating has recently become popular as a charity fund raiser in rural Britain, and is seen as a good way of meeting different neighbors in the community by virtue of each participant having 6 separate guests.


Another variation on the potluck dinner is the rota meal. Participants take turns providing food for the entire group, rather than each participant bringing a dish. For regular meals with a fairly consistent set of participants, this dramatically reduces the amount of preparation effort required.

Slideluck Potshow

Slideluck Potshow (SLPS) is a non-profit organization devoted to building and strengthening community around food and art. Founded by advertising and editorial photographer, Casey Kelbaugh, in 2000, the New York City-based organization’s events now take place in about forty cities around the world. Slideluck Potshow sponsors exhibitions of artistic works, produced in slideshow format, designed to showcase works created by both novice and established artists. At each Slideluck Potshow event, the slideshow exhibition is preceded by a potluck-style dinner during which networking and mingling among attendees is encouraged. All guests are asked to contribute as the event is entirely dependent on participation.

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