May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
June 21, 2011
Editor’s Note: In 2010, The Other Journal published The Spirit of Food: Thirty-Four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, a collection of essays and recipes that colorfully depict how our acts of eating echo the community of the church and the sacrament of communion. One of these essays, “The Church Potluck,” which we have chosen to feature in our Food Issue, offers a meditation on how the mediocrity of a church potluck—its Jell-o salads and overcooked pastas—can invite us to examine our aloof, cranky hearts, to be a guest instead of a host, and to “come, sit, eat.” 
When choosing between green bean casseroles, I’m faced with a problem: do I go with or without Durkee fried onions? It’s not a life-and-death problem, but it matters to me. I usually go with. I need the texture, something to hold the mass together on both the palate and the plate. Perhaps you feel otherwise. Or your feelings are mixed. Not just on the fried onions, but on the whole enterprise, this religious custom of eating together. Behold the church potluck.
Perhaps you are on the church grounds and the weather is lovely. Having filled your plate with an impossible assortment of salads and proteins and pastries, you get comfortable on your quilt. You are with your family or with friends whom you consider family. Having worshipped in creed and Word and hymn, you now give thanks for the gifts of downtime, of laughter, of fellowship. The children are running and playing tag, their mouths crammed with brownies, and you aren’t worried. This is no time to be tense. Tell stories. Catch up. Rest. Eat. Be glad.
I, however, am more likely in the church basement. Someone who will not be thanked arrived early and set up a gauntlet of wood-veneer folding tables whose corners have disintegrated. The tables perform architectural miracle by bearing the load of soggy lasagnas, pounds of Pyrexed casseroles, buckets of chicken, a singular serving of twice-baked fish, and baskets of garlic bread, one of which was surely seasoned by someone who mistook “tsp” for “tbsp.”
As a rule, I avoid Jell-O containing anything besides more Jell-O. I’m in line, and I can see that the Grant children—bless their greedy little hearts—have pillaged the home-baked lemon squares, leaving unmangled only the store-bought M&M cookies. Honey-baked ham hunks gelatinize. At the end of the tables: a solo pack of cups (thanks, Dave—you always bring cups), plastic knives, napkin stack.
I forgot to have Michael save me a seat, so I’m most likely stuck, again, at a table with Elder Maynor, who will ask, again, “Why don’t we stop saying ‘potluck’?”
His question is both predictable and rhetorical, but he will answer anyway: “We should call it potprovidence!” I stuff my face with meatloaf, heavy on the ketchup.
* * *
Our experience at the table differs. Some have tasted glory, some ruin. All of us, though, regardless of denomination or geography, have eaten, have fed and been fed. This tradition, despite the motives by which we enact it and the meanings with which we infuse it, requires food. Despite our differences, it’s just food.
But it’s never just food.
I joined the church my freshman year of college. My college was located in a very southern town in Mississippi, a state that takes pride in feeding people. This church didn’t take me into its fold so much as group-hug me into belonging. They took seriously their call to love people, especially people who weren’t eating right. I was one of those people, an undergrad with an underfed bank account and an eager appetite. The day I joined the church, I stood in front of the congregation, recited membership vows, was baptized, was hugged, and was fed. Over the next five years, I would receive their guidance, their encouragement, their BBQ, their crawfish boils, their sun-brewed tea, and their love, sweet in equal measure. I drank and ate it up.
I never brought anything to those potlucks, and no one said a thing. “Just bring yourself,” they’d say, “that’s enough.” I believed them. I went as I was: empty-handed, needy, and willing to receive.
The church potluck as we know it has no direct biblical precedent. Its origins are murky, and no one, it seems, is too concerned. The word itself can be found in manuscripts as early as the sixteenth century, in, as I call them, the olden times, as in “Ye Olde Pot Lucke.” Pot Lucke, as I understand the rules, worked like this: someone shows up at your cottage unannounced, and your obligation, whether you’re feasting, fasting, praying, or reproducing, is to acknowledge your guest’s need and act on it. You welcome him, despite the imposition, and you say, whether your guest is the nephew of the prince or, more likely, the pest of the hamlet, whether your crock is full of pungent dregs or royal stock, “What I have in the pot is yours; yours is the lucke of the pot.” What you don’t say, though it is nonetheless true, is “Don’t you dare complain. Clearly, you’re not in a position to make demands, or you wouldn’t be showing up all unannounced and needy like this at a time, frankly, that’s not really good for me. If you think you can do better elsewhere, by all means, go for it—no one’s holding a musket to your head.”
Pardon my Early Modern English. When I speculate on the reasons someone might show up unannounced like that, I get annoyed. Not so much because the guest is needy but because he displays his need so nakedly, so directly, so shamelessly, that he’s willing both to ask for help and to receive it. The way I used to, when I was willing to identify myself as the guest. I get annoyed because I see myself as I used to be, as I’m not anymore, and I know that I have lost, to a large degree, this willingness to admit my need, to confess it, to act on it, to receive.
Somewhere along the line, I went from gladly identifying myself as guest to thinking it was about time I got to be the host, the one with something to offer. So you will not be surprised when I tell you that I haven’t willingly attended a church potluck in a long time, not since my undergraduate years, when I was keenly aware of how much I needed and was willing to admit that need.
I know it’s more complicated than that. I know there’s no one-to-one correlation between my potluck problems and my personal problems. But I also know that when I have problems with the church, I should always seek to take them seriously. I want to take seriously, then, my problems, perhaps yours, with the church potluck.
Number one: the church potluck is unique in that everyone, regardless of wealth, class, status, or beauty can bring something to the table, has something to offer. Paper-plate dude, award-winning chili-master, body-odor guy, college kid, over-enunciating chorister, grocery-store-cookie buyer, beloved pastor, crooked preacher—all are invited, all are guests. We are in this together, so come, sit, eat.
I don’t like that. I don’t like being lumped together like that. I don’t like how the potluck puts us all at the same table. I don’t like that I often have to sit with someone I wouldn’t otherwise choose to sit with. When that happens, what I’ll say is “How are you doing? Tell me about your job, your dog, your stock portfolio.” What I’m thinking is “He is so annoying. When is this going to be over?” What I’m believing is that you have nothing to offer me, that I have no need for you.
Number two: the potluck is a buffet. Whether the food is haute, ho-hum, or hell-no, the selection is limited. You do not get to order what you want. You must make the best of what’s available. You are at the mercy of those who contribute to the meal.
I do not like that. I’m a picky eater, I confess, but it’s more than that. Should someone remark on how wonderful everything looks, I’ll say, “Mmmmm, yes, looks great.” But what I’m thinking is “It’s the same stuff every time. Can we not improve the menu? If I were in charge, this would be amazing.” What I’m believing is that you have nothing to offer me, that I deserve better.
Maybe I’m reading too much into the church potluck, but I don’t think so. I would like to justify my attitude toward the potluck as a reasonable critique of a superfluous tradition. But I know that I can find reasons to criticize or reject pretty much everything the church does. In fact, I occasionally catch myself thinking that I don’t really need the church, that I can just skip the physical and go straight to the spiritual, push aside the means and deal directly with the ends. I know that’s not true. I am no gnostic. But I get so desperate for spiritual communion that I’m terrifyingly ready to resent the people and their food for getting in my way: “I do not need your food,” I convince myself, “Quit wasting my time. I deserve better.”
I would hate to confess this, except that you are not shocked by my condition. You probably don’t know me, but you know yourself. And you struggle with this, too. None of us wants twice-baked fish and over-seasoned loaves. What I want, what we all want, though we express it in different ways, is for God to come to us directly, to walk down from his hill and hold us, to tell us, directly and in his own words, that what we’re doing is worthwhile, that we are loved.
That’s why I groan, finally, over the church potluck. If anyone is going to feed me, I want Jesus to do it. I want him to be my host. I want to be his guest. In the meantime, I have the casserole queen and the potprovidence elder and the brownie-mouthed children, all of us desperate for the same thing. We are doing, each of us, what we can to host each other and to be each other’s guests. At the church potluck, all distinctions between guest and host are gone. We are neither. We are both. We need more than we can say, more than we can give.
The church, I think, is God’s way of saying, “What I have in the pot is yours, and what I have is a group of misfits whom you need more than you know and who need you more than they know. Take, and eat,” he says, “and take, and eat, until the day, and it is coming, that you knock on my door. I will open it, and you will see me face to face.” He is preparing a table. He will welcome us in. Jesus will be there, smiling and holy, holding out a green bean casserole. I will not care about the fried onions. And at that moment, what we say, what we think, and what we believe will the same: “I didn’t know how badly I needed this.”
 This essay was first published by The Other Journal as “The Church Potluck, Seriously” in Leslie Leyland Fields, ed., The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 228–32. Reprinted here with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Jeremy Clive Huggins