Q: What’s a “potluck”?
A: Some say potluck originated in the custom of sharing dishes of food, or giving away what you’ve cooked, in the potlatch of Native Americans of the northwest — a big celebration—when the host would give away all his worldly goods.
Potluck was originally made with meal leftovers that could be put into a pot and kept warm, and could be used to feed a lot of people on short notice. This practice was especially prevalent in taverns and inns during the Middle Ages, so that when you showed up for a meal, you took the “luck of the pot.” The closest translation is the French term pot au feu which is an impromptu meal at home (meaning: pot on the fire).
Buffet, also a French word for sideboard, describes an assortment of hot and cold food, a little like the Swedish Smörgåsbord, or cold buffet (neither would be mistaken for gourmet). The American style buffet is an all-you-can-eat food bar for a set price, where food is placed in a public area and the guests view the food and immediately select which dishes they wish to consume and how much. Very appealing for large families on a budget.
A closer look into this genial food giving tradition reveals a surprisingly dark side that explains how older societies (or about 85% of the rest of the world) adapted their traditions to hard times by taking the long-term view. Tomorrow will come. For them, surviving adversity means developing a propensity for saving, perseverance, and thrift, or in this case eating potluck. And for those people who have endured a long history of hardship – war, famine, invasion, poverty — America’s culture of conspicuous consumption can be hard to swallow.