In small towns and villages across the heartland of America, community gatherings to share food and friendship have been a tradition for generations.
From fire halls to church basements, from club meetings to PTA functions in the school cafeteria, the announcements of upcoming events usually include the reminder to “bring a dish to pass.”
Food, glorious food, is at the heart of these turnouts.
On the designated day, covered dishes are carried carefully across the parking lot. Inside, the serving tables soon groan under the weight of casserole bowls, baking dishes and trays covered with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Every container holds one family’s signature offering to share.
Although at home, each of these clans happily dine on such no-prep items as store-bought potato salad or order-in pizza, only home-cooked dishes are acceptable at the community pot lucks.
And tradition being what it is, pity the new comer who opts to bring something exotic like artichoke hearts in a special sauce or a dish made with tofu and topped with fresh mint leaves. These concoctions are doomed to be left untouched while well-established favorites like Emily’s tasty corn casserole and Nora’s sweet potato-applesauce bake are gone before the last plate is filled.
Through the years I’ve been part of more potluck suppers than I can count. Back in our years in little Findley Lake, we attended countless such community events at the fire hall, the Findley Lake United Methodist Church and at Camp Findley, the lakeside church retreat.
Early on, I tried to establish my own signature dish to pass. But, not being a very creative cook, I never reached the success that many of the region’s stellar kitchen magicians achieved. I couldn’t hold a candle to such apron aficionados as Millie Keith, Katie Bradley or Jean Buesink.
But I kept trying.
When I became the proud owner of my first crock pot, I thought my dish-to-pass troubles were over. With this handy appliance, I was sure I could conjure up something outstanding that would wow my neighbors. I decided my entry into the potluck scene would be baked beans.
Actually, while others were making similar offerings from scratch — cleaning and cooking the beans, then adding their special sauce — I took the easy way. With the help of the folks at Campbell’s Foods and my trusty can opener, I opened two family-sized cans of pork and beans and put them into my waiting crock pot. Then I rummaged through my spices and condiments, adding a pinch of this and a touch of that until I achieved a taste with a bit of extra zing.
The dish cooked all day and was warm and fragrant when I placed it on the table at the fire hall.
As I recall, the pot of beans was fairly well received. Of course, it didn’t draw the raves of the dishes brought by such culinary stars as Helen Locke, Fran Himelein and Joan Proctor.
Still, I was able to hold my head up among the “also ran” cooks. And, the beans that were left gave me something to take home for the family.
These days, though I seldom make the potluck supper scene, the events continue to be among the most popular gatherings throughout small-town America. It’s a safe bet that on any given day, folks are still sitting shoulder to shoulder at those long trestle tables in the fire hall or the church basement, sharing the signature dishes from the kitchens of area cooks.
Potluck suppers will remain down-home traditions as long as food and friendship are integral parts of community life.