What should I bring to a potluck supper?

Last night Scientia had a potluck supper at Rick and Therése’s Wareloft. In my view, potlucks are about the company, and great company it was, our friends at different levels from the last 30 years! But of course the food is essential. The food can be terrible at potlucks, and if it is, I hope you have a designated driver, and can concentrate on the conversation, and the wine, or the punch, even non alcoholic, like the delicious one Therése made. I suppose some people go to potlucks all the time, and have a signature dish they always bring. We don’t. Most of the potlucks we go to are the holiday parties in our department. There we find so many dishes that by picking and choosing, one can create a pleasing meal.

Often at smaller potlucks there is an effort to balance. Maybe you had to check off a category, appetizer, main, vegetable, salad, dessert, drinks, say. But those categories don’t necessarily describe how we eat any more. Most of our mains are vegetables, after all. Jewelette kindly made us a menu so I can tell you what was served at our potluck. I’ll skip the appetizers which were cheeses, nuts, candies, olives, that sort of thing. We had two salads, one Greek, one spinach. We had salmon with asparagus, an extravagant main brought in plenty. I hope the asparagus didn’t come from Peru, where the asparagus farming is stealing precious water from the native populations. We had chicken drumsticks. Drinks were wine, water, and an amazing punch, my favorite thing of the meal.

But what did we bring? You can probably imagine I had a few quarts of cooked pumpkin in the freezer that I hadn’t yet foisted on my family. I got those out the day before. I found another 2-cup container in the freezer that was red lentil dal, nearly the same color, so I got that out too. In the evening before the potluck, when I had plenty of time in case this didn’t work, I mixed about 2 quarts of cooked pumpkin with the pint of dal, and stirred it, then tasted. It was unexciting, so I looked in the refrigerator, and found a nice bowl, about 2 cups, of a green tomato salsa I had made, rich with onions, jalapeños and cilantro. I threw that in. I liked the spiciness, so I added a couple more tablespoons of red Cholula hotsauce. Oh, I also added about a cup of mashed potatoes left over from Thanksgiving. Now the dish was coming together, but still was not complete.

By the way, I have a special technique for tasting, which is essential if you cook the way I do. I have one of those Chinese plastic flat-bottomed soup spoons, and I take the spoon I use to stir, and drip some of what I want to taste into that Chinese spoon. It keeps the main dish pure, and means I don’t have to keep getting new spoons.

But the pumpkin-dal-salsa stew wasn’t quite done. It needed something. I thought of Africa, and added 3/4 cup chunky peanut butter. This did the trick, gave the stew a richness, a complication of flavor, a depth that it needed. I added more hot sauce, and another few cups of water, and had my dish. My husband asked me what he should call it, in case people asked, and I said pumpkin curry. They still asked. After I told them about the pumpkin and the dal, then no one guessed the peanut butter, though once I named it, they could detect it. We also brought a pot of basmati rice, made more aromatic with a couple tablespoons of coconut oil.

So, at this potluck, we were the only ones bringing starches, so maybe that is what you should bring. Others will bring appetizers, meats, salads, and desserts. Someone has to bring the rice and beans. Us? We had a fabulous time, and hope we discover some potluck friends in St. Louis.


What an enticing table!


The “pumpkin curry”


The rice.


The wonderful salmon and asparagus.


Salads were great!


Bob and Jonel Curl. He’s got a Nobel prize, and is one of the nicest and most interesting people at Rice.


Suzanne Kemmer, from linguistics, and Jewelette Christopher, our organizer.


Jewelette wanted a group photo. Our hosts, Rick and Therése are on the right. Our chief, Susan McIntosh, is third from left.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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