The Power of a Potluck in a Divided America

Editor's Note:

Kristin Donnelly is a food writer, recipe tester, and developer. She was an editor at Food & Wine for eight years, and is most recently the author of Modern Potluck. For Signature, Kristin writes about how, at its core, a potluck has the power to bring people together and bridge divides.

I’m starting to think potlucks can change the world, but that’s not originally why I wrote a book about them.

You see, Modern Potluck began as a bit of a selfish endeavor, an answer to a new social problem in my own life. Before my daughter was born four years ago, I used to meet friends at restaurants or invite them over for dinner parties that took me all day to prepare. With the cost of babysitters and new constraints on my time, I couldn’t fit my old social life into my new reality. I’m incredibly introverted and can spend long stretches of time alone, but even I started to feel lonely after my first year of motherhood.

The solution, I realized, was in my past.

Growing up outside Philadelphia, I was surrounded by extended family. It seemed like every weekend was a gathering for one cousin’s birthday or another. “Entertaining” back then was never the overthought stuff you’d see in magazines or on Pinterest. It was easy and fluid. Everyone bought a dish. We often used paper plates. Essentially, it was a potluck, even if we never called it that.

Food, however, has changed a lot since I was a kid. Creamy starchy casseroles and dips made from packaged seasoning have given way to artisan pickles, gluten-free diets,  #foodporn hashtags, pastured eggs, and kimchi tacos. When you cook for people, you often have to consider things like dietary restrictions and sustainability (and, perhaps, Instagram worthiness). I wrote Modern Potluck to give people updated, foolproof, crowd-pleasing recipes that will hold up on the buffet table and are also just a little bit impressive; to inspire those cooks who tend to always bring the same thing, as well as cooks who are always looking for something new.

The book focuses on recipes that call for farmers’ market vegetables as well as boldly flavored ingredients. They make use of the contemporary pantry, which includes ingredients like harissa (a North African spice paste) and whole-grain rye flour. I’ve also updated potluck staples, like the ubiquitous Seven Layer Salad, to include herbs and quinoa rather than shredded cheese and bacon bits. The recipes take into account the fact that many people now avoid meat, all animal products, or gluten; I tried to include something for many different tastes.

In today’s busy world, potlucks are more important than ever. They let a person make one dish and get a whole meal in return. Plus, let’s be honest: Cooking with high-quality, sustainable ingredients, like organic produce or pastured meats is expensive. Potlucks allow people to share costs with guests. They also provide conversation, connection, and community, which have been shown over and over again to be good for personal well-being.

Meals together are also better for society in general. Yes, healthy debate can happen in online forums, but they also allow for people to dehumanize others and reduce them to either good or evil. Whenever I read a hateful or divisive comment online, I often wonder, could this person say those exact words to the other’s face as he or she ladles soup from the same pot?

In what seems like a radical act, Black Lives Matter supporters in Witchita, Kansas, got together with police officers for a barbecue to talk over their issues and build better relationships. In Wilmington, North Carolina, the local YMCA just held its third Potluck for Peace to talk about racism and diversity.

In my fantasy world, this would be the normal way to deal with conflict and tough issues. Arguments might get passionate but never violent, because maybe everyone can at least agree that someone brought the best meatballs (or vegan paté) they’ve ever had.