I am a mutual friend at the potluck.

The “potluck” is a concept that has permeated every part of my life as of late.  This is, perhaps, because I am a twentysomething (i.e. poor.), a vast majority of my friends are social workers and/or artists (i.e. poor.), my colleagues are servicing public education and the non-profit sector (i.e. poor.), and we all live in San Francisco (i.e. hella poor, yet in rather significant self-denial.)

The etymology of “potluck” is supposedly 16th Century English, derived from the term “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.”  I, of course, operate under the firm belief that that the name was developed by a young urbanite who, upon pouring herself a bowl of generic brand frosted cornflakes while doning an embarrassing arrangement of fortune-cookie pajama pants and an oversized cartoon sweatshirt, decided that she would invite several people to gather in her quaint living space under the condition that they bring a dish of their own (thereby minimizing the cost and allowing an inconceivably delightful spread of seven types of pies), lest she be reminded that it is, indeed, a raucous night for all except she – she who is at home eating a bowl of generic brand frosted cornflakes and wearing a pair of fortune-cookie pajama pants and an oversized cartoon sweatshirt.  Henceforth, the “potluck” became a celebrated holiday affair because “Jen’s typical Thursday night as a single 23-year-old” was rejected by the administrators at Wikipeda.

All kidding aside, for all its financial benefits, the “potluck” is challenging and complicated concept that posits itself to be an apocalyptic social disaster.  The very foundation of the “potluck” counters the core of human nature – you mean you want me to show up on time, bring a dish that is both edible and magically fits in with the balanced composition of the other unknown dishes, and interact with the invited cooks of each dish who are as random as the assortment of foods on this very table?

Moreover, there is an unspoken echelon associated with “potluck” items – a spectrum of dish types (entrée, appetizer, dessert) with assigned qualifiers (made from scratch, semi-homemade, store bought, something I saw on Rachel Ray’s show five years ago) and adjectives (delectable, good, mediocre, food poisoning).  What one chooses to bring is a gateway to the soul, an unconscious association of who you are as a human being.  On one end of the continuum is the immaculate, labor intensive centerpiece turkey, meticulously cooked by those who are time efficient, thoughtful, and worthwhile cooks.  On the other side are the non-alcohol beverages – the cases of Diet Shasta Cola purchased hastily at the nearest Safeway 30 minutes prior to said “potluck” out of absentmindedness by people like, well, me.

(Editor’s Note: I fear that I will never be invited to a social event ever again after writing this entry, but I will make that sacrifice for the truth – as true as true can possibly be if it is what it is).

I write in jest because I actually adore the “potluck” despite scoring appallingly low on what I choose to bring.  They are my favorite form of social gathering – more conducive to conservation than bars and an interesting tapestry of people brought together by the assumption that you, like your food, have a complementary place.  They are a microcosm of socially incestuous major metropolitan areas, incubators of new friendships, bizarre reminders the bonds already forged.  I have met some of my favorite people at potlucks and have mapped the numerous connections to the people that I know.  This evening, I was invited to a gathering with guests that reinforced how weird and wonderful potlucks (and life) can be:

  • The Neighbors: One evening, after a few drinks and encouragement by my roommates, I felt compelled to meet the neighbors in my apartment.  I wandered downstairs, walked into their party, and somehow became the unofficial sitter for their cat, Oscar.  Five blocks down and a few weeks later, in another apartment, they were forwarded the invite of the potluck from a friend who was friends with the host who is friends with me.  They brought lentil soup and we talked about grad school.
  • The Friend of a Friend of a Friend: During my senior year, a girl (now a good friend) took a semester off from school in New York to sublet a room in my apartment in DC.  Today, in San Francisco, I met one of her best friends from high school who also went to high school with the host of the potluck who is friends with me.  She brought pie and we talked about our mutual friend.
  • The “So Do You Know [Insert Long Shot Here]”:  I met a girl who grew up in a Massachusetts town that sent quite a few people to my college – one of whom is my friend.  This girl was familiar with the name of my friend, but also randomly met two guys who went to her very high school, who also graduated the same year that she did.  She brought brownies and we talked about San Francisco.

I brought delicious, store-bought pear and fig tart pie (and brought the self associated with such a purchase) and talked about everything I never get to say in bars, to people I would not have otherwise met, in the kind of event that, despite its peculiarities, should happen far, far, far more often.