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Potlucks

Competitive Potlucking: Party

We had a concept. We had an invitation. We had a guest list. We had promotion. Eventually, the big day arrived.

It was time to potluck. Competitively.

As always, the set-up took a fair bit of time. Fortunately, after the Children’s Stories Potluck of 2014, we’d set our neighbors’ long tables (borrowed for the event) on our front porch…and left them there for 54 weeks.

Thus, it was easy as hell to set up the long tables ‘cause there they were.

In addition to chairs and tables, another component of the preparation is creating ballots and a registration sheet for tallying the votes.

Plus, we’re usually scrambling to get our entries made. I tell you: hosting is sweat-inducing work.

Fortunately, my mood this year stayed light, largely due to two visitors: Celebrity Guests Kirsten and Virginia, who had driven five hours north to attend the event. We also felt fortunate and blessed that my uncle, Scott, freshly out of the hospital after having had two strokes in the preceding days, was able to attend. The day after the party, he suffered another stroke and was re-hospitalized but appears, as of this writing, to be doing well.

My point is this: you don’t keep a life-long Minnesotan away from a potluck.

At the appointed hour, guests and dishes began to arrive. I’ll let pictures tell the story.

Collage 3

Collage 8

Party Armenian

Party Beer

Party Cabbage Rolls

Collage 7

Party Cakewalk

Party Brownies

Collage 6

Party Cheez Whiz

Party Cinnamon

Party Funyuns

Party Ham

Collage 1

Party Hershey Pie

Party Marshmallows

Party Muhamara

Party Salsa

Collage 4

Party Murrays

Party Rice Krispie

Collage 5

Party Sandwich Load

Party

Party Stories

Party Velveeta

Party Ballots

When the votes were tallied at the end of the evening, we had our winners:

In the Under-16 categories, two young people won Target gift cards:

Best Taste: Paco, for his Turkish chicken shish kebab (one of the few proteins on the table)

Party Shish

Best Story: Emily, for her story of Goofballs. Her great-grandma always made Goofballs; they were a family standard particularly loved by Emily’s uncle. This uncle suffered from mental health issues that resulted in his life ending prematurely. At the top of Emily’s sign of explanation was a mirror, so each person taking a Goofball from the tupperware container saw him/herself reflected: a real goofball. As a poignant epilogue to her story, Emily’s great-grandmother passed away a few days after the potluck. It is lovely that Emily’s dish received recognition, as it proved that food is love; food is memory; food connects us through the generations.

Party Goofballs

In the Adult categories, two people won gift baskets containing local beers, some wine, a couple types of crackers, chocolate, a mini-baguette from Great Harvest bakery, dish-washing scrubbies–and a new dish towel:

Winner's Basket

Best Taste: Aunt Phyl (who also won last year for bringing shredded pork under a brick as tribute to “The Three Little Pigs”) for her Magic Marshmallow Puffs, which are essentially a marshmallow wrapped in a crescent roll, all sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Again, it was a delight that Aunt Phyl won–since she’d whipped together her offerings after spending a few days in the hospital worrying about her husband. All Hail The Caretakers!

Best Story: It was fitting that the Best Story award went to the best storyteller I know: my beloved Virginia. More than one friend and neighbor were charmed by her that evening. Her story, below, won her a crowd of fans, for it reminded all of us, standing there on the lawn in the gathering darkness–a group held rapt by her voice as she read her tale–that coming together in fellowship, that standing shoulder-to-shoulder with good people, that sharing stories with friends and strangers, that giving over to the flow of conversation and food and laughter, that the togetherness generated when we extend and accept invitations

are some of the greatest gifts of our lives.


Party Virginia's

Virginia’s story:

As a little girl, I waited for WWII to end so that my three favorite treats would be available again: marshmallows, balloons, and Fleer’s Dubble Bubble gum. Finally, when I was 9, and the war had been over for one year, Dad brought home 2 individually-wrapped pieces of Dubble Bubble. My brother and I waited until after supper to chew. It was heavenly.

When Dad tucked us in, I hid my wad inside my cheek. In the dark, I blew such a big bubble that it popped out of my mouth and landed under my left ear in my shoulder-length hair. Afraid to call Dad for help, I found an Indian arrowhead in a dresser drawer and sawed the wad out of my hair. Bad enough that this left a hole. Even worse was that I couldn’t rechew my wad the next day.  (hairball)

That’s my story and it’s stickin’ to me.

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If you are interested to know more about Virginia, here is a post I wrote about her during the year Byron, the kids, and I lived in Turkey: “To Feel the Sun from Both Sides”

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Potlucks

Competitive Potlucking: Promotion

The beauty of social media is that it can not only be used to issue invitations to a party, it can also be used to remind invitees of the upcoming event. The hosts can occasionally post a little tidbit to the event page, attempting to wring one or two more responses from the semi-responsive guest list.

Let me put a finer point on this: has anyone else notice that the RSVP is dead?

I bemoaned this death years ago, back when we were throwing birthday parties for our kids and wondering how many of their friends would actually be showing up for the bowling, or the crafting, or the tubing. It was kind of a half-annoyed process of “We have to pay per head, and the invitation asked for an RSVP, and so now I have to call you up on the phone and chase this information down?” Fortunately, at least with the easy-response system built into Facebook, there are quite a few folks who do indicate if they will be able to attend or not. You know, like 20%.

At any rate, as we closed in on the evening of our Nostalgia Potluck, I enjoyed tossing the occasional post onto the event page, both to remind folks of the event but also because I find the intertwining of food and memory to be endlessly fascinating.

Thus, a few weeks after the invitation first went out, I reminded potential guests:

Two weeks left to mine your memories and identify those foods that are lodged deep within your hearts. Or, y’know, stop by the Holiday gas station for a pack of Twinkies. Whatever works.

The most iconic food/memory association in literature was written by Marcel Proust in his Remembrance of Things Past. Dude could hang some words together, so let’s be glad he and I had a falling out some years ago. He won’t be at the potluck; due to his absence, the rest of us actually stand a chance at winning the “story” prize.

“…one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?”

Madeleines
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/9kJ2ct

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A week or so after that, I posted:

As a shout-out to Halloween fears of the 1970s, I’m currently thinking I might make apples with razor blades in them as my potluck offering. You’ll vote for me, right?

Go ahead and fill out your ballot using blood from your tongue instead of a pen.

Apple
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/29L8Fo
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The day before the party, I recalled:

A few years into marriage, I learned even more about Byron’s family. Showing up for a Christmas family gathering, I stood, stunned, as Byron’s grandma and aunt bustled around the kitchen, preparing the entree.

It was to be HAM PATTIES.

As often also happens when I’m in the classroom, I had a moment of paralysis, thinking, “I don’t even know what’s going on here.”

Sliding out of the kitchen and into the basement, Byron and I had one of our patented tete-a-tetes, wherein he explains the world to me. I hissed, “What in the hell is a ham patty?”

“We had it off and on at family gatherings when I was growing up. Basically, you buy a ham and then ask the butcher to grind it up.”

I heard his words, but I didn’t understand. I had to use “hell” a second time. “Why in the hell would you grind up a perfectly good ham and then make PATTIES out of it?”

“It’s war-time cooking, really, a way to extend the meat by grinding it and then adding things like bread crumbs to it. So it makes sense in times when food is short.”

Bemused, I wondered, “Does your grandma know the war is over? Or should I go upstairs and complain about FDR and the shortage of nylon stockings?”

Grandma Johnson DID know the war was over; however, she continued to make ham patties for special occasions because, for her, WWII had–to be honest–been the time of her life. She met and married her pilot husband; she served proudly in the WACS; she started her family. For the rest of her life, she adored the music, stories, and fashion of WWII above all others. And, yea, the food too.

I like to think that if she were still alive, Grandma Johnson (“Call me G-Gma!) would bring a platter of ham patties to tomorrow’s potluck.

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Later that day–really pummeling the invite list–I added:

Reasons to bother yourself and get the hell over here tomorrow night:

Byron hung lights and planted torches;

there’s a black bear working the neighborhood these last few days. Yesterday, it was exactly where Byron just hung lights and planted torches, and how is it not fun to protect potluck food from marauding wildlife?

Such tales are the stuff of legend, I say!

lights

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Finally, the morning of the potluck, I tantalized those few who hadn’t yet unfriended me on Facebook:

Gift baskets and cards for tonight’s winners. This shizz is gettin’ serious, people.

Baskets

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Yea, I know you’re wondering what’s wrapped up in those baskets.

To find out, read my next post. We’re getting there, Gentle Readers. I’m giving you time here to make your offering for the party.

Get crackin’ on opening up those cans of beans, slicing that Spam, and weeping (shoulders shaking with emotion) over how much you miss your grandma. Or, more specifically, since she was kind of a crabby grump, how you miss her blueberry pie. Chicken noodle soup. Chestnut stuffing.

Dumplings.

Creamy pearl onions.

Lemon squares.

Squirrel stew.

Her Christmas specialty:

Roasted Raccoon
Photo Credit: http://www.midcenturymenu.com/2009/11/mid-century-menu-pineapple-hamettes/
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Potlucks

Competitive Potlucking: Invitation

My mom had a punch bowl.

I do not have a punch bowl.

I don’t need one.

The only reason I’d need a punch bowl is to hold my excess shoes, the ones I can’t fit on the floor of my closet. Or on the floor of the back porch. Or in my special shoe organizer hanging in my closet. Or in my other special shoe organizer on the back porch. Or on the shoe shelf in the front coat closet.

I take it back: I need a punch bowl.

Flip-flops.

Personal obsessions aside, a case can be made for punch bowls, if one is given to entertaining. How else are you going to float a raft of sherbet in a lake of Hawaiian punch and 7-Up? However, as I look around at my peers, I have to say we, as a generation, aren’t punch bowlers. We don’t entertain like our parents and grandparents did. Why would we want to entertain when it’s so much nicer to hang out with our friends through the computer?

You think that last is some sort of commentary, don’t you? If so, you’re reading the media’s agenda into my words. Railing against technology is pat, easy thinking: “Computers are ruining us! The Internet is compromising face-to-face exchanges!” I actually prefer hanging out with friends through the computer. By and large, I’d rather not see people. Bizarrely, it’s more intimate that way. Plus: boundaries. Plus: me no have to wear a bra. Plus: I can start and stop interacting when I want to. Plus: I don’t have to do big, dramatic greetings or long, extended goodbyes. Plus: no need to work up performance energy. Plus: it’s perfect for social introverts…or, err, introverted extroverts…or, um, whatever I am this year. Plus: I don’t have to leap up and get drinks for anyone but myself. Plus: I’m lazy and selfish, so refilling only my own drink suits me fine. Plus: doesn’t the word “Plus” look kind of weird when you read it for the ninth or tenth time in a row?

Of course, I’m being overly broad when I lump all my peers into a “No Need for Punch Bowl” passel. We do entertain, just less frequently, less lavishly. There are people my age who host Thanksgiving dinners, have friends over for drinks, throw graduation parties, welcome a book group.

Yet it’s different. Gone are the days of sing-alongs around the piano; the children of the house collecting guests’ coats and heaping them on a bed down the hall; Sunday night sandwiches and pots of coffee brewed with eggs (shell and all); women extracting their hands from their opera gloves by unbuttoning the wrist openings; cream cheese mints popped out of molds and arranged on glass platters.

I was raised in a house where some of these things happened, and those evenings when, say, a church choir would come over were tinged with excitement. There would be singing. Coats would be collected. Mints would be eaten. The punch bowl would dominate the dining room table. From the basement, where we kids would seek safe harbor from inquisitive adult faces, I would listen to the floor creaking above my head, hear the co-mingling of voices creating the synergy that is a party–the warmth of collected bodies seeping into the subterranean depths of orange carpet and wood-paneled walls.

Now, forty years later, when it comes to entertaining, I am of two hearts (which puts me 2/3 of the way to becoming an octopus!): I love it, and I don’t want to be bothered with it. Fortunately, I married a guy who feels exactly the same way. We tell ourselves it’s a fair exchange to have 300+ nights a year for ourselves, during which we eat dinner at 9 p.m. in front of our Show of Choice, countered by a decent slate of social occasions where we hope against hope that someone will show up in opera gloves carrying a platter of mints fresh out of the mold.

In terms of occasions we ourselves host, the majority of our “entertaining” consists of having people come to stay for a night, a weekend, a handful of days, a couple of weeks. In addition to that, we’ve settled into hosting an annual Event. It evolved out of inviting neighbors over for yay-the-kids-are-going-back-to-school night of drinks and in recent years has gained shape and energy.

Once a year, we hold a competitive potluck in our yard.

Inspired by Food Network shows and people’s love of winning, we’ve got themes; we’ve got prizes. It started four years ago, and since then we’ve had a “Pairings” party (guests were challenged to bring a dish accompanied by a dish-enhancing drink), a gathering where “ginger” was the theme ingredient, and a potluck where all dishes had to be related to a fairy tale or children’s story (the post about that party can be read here).

A big part of the fun, for our family, is brainstorming the next year’s topic. We spend months tossing around ideas.

This year, we all agreed on this idea: the theme would be nostalgia, with guests being asked to offer up dishes that somehow tied into memories of specific or special times of their lives.

Below is the invitation. In my next post, I’ll share some of the “promotions” for the potluck that we threw out during the weeks before the party. After that, I’ll post photos from the evening, so you can see what folks brought. Hint: it was a festival of refined sugar and carbohydrates.

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Potluck Invite

The invitation:

Byron’s parents are healthy eaters. Thus, when Byron reminisces about the dinners of his childhood, listeners often ask, “You guys probably ate salads and beans every night, right?”

When Byron recalls his childhood dinners, he recounts this household standby: cut-up, fried hot dogs stirred into instant mashed potatoes, all topped by gravy made from wiener juices.

Even though this dish inspires shudders, it also inspires nostalgia.

And that’s this year’s theme for our annual competitive potluck: NOSTALGIA.

Please, if you’re free, come hang out in our yard and participate in the competition. All guests are invited to contribute a “nostalgic food” dish. It could be the roast your mom made every Sunday. It could be the challah bread you braided with your grandmother. It could be the turkey tetrazzini that made you vomit into a trash can outside your social studies classroom in seventh grade. It could be the martini you ordered on your first date with your now-spouse. Just bring a food offering that occupies a special place in your memory—that ties into an important or specific time of your life.

Prizes will be awarded in two categories: Best Dish and Best Story Explaining the Dish. Mind you, “best” is a term loosely applied. We like to think fried hot dogs and instant mashed potatoes would stand a chance of winning the gold. Prizes will also be awarded in two age categories: Under-16 and 16+.

Your Hosts: Byron, Jocelyn, Allegra, and Paco

Saturday, September 19th, with registration starting at 5 p.m., voting beginning at 6 p.m., and the evening ending when you vomit into the trash can

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How about you, Gentle Reader? What might you have brought to this potluck?

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