Recalling a potluck in Suratgarh for which she took a dabba of hot thenkuzhal, Meera Ganapathi contemplates the unspoken rules of a potluck, and the essence of what makes one stand out.
Potlucks are not for the faint-hearted. Within the rigid framework of a well-executed one, each dish must complement the other, but also stand out enough to be discussed. Besides, everyone knows that the star of every potluck is a dish that sparks conversation. And, that there is no greater shame than your contribution being ignored. One potluck participant I spoke to still remembers the agony of watching her chowmein go untouched in a table full of dahi vadas, imli chutney, chole, and puris. “It was not badly made, it was just the wrong dish for that menu,” she says, a touch defensively.
Potluck veterans will tell you that a good host orchestrates their spread like a puppet master. It begins with deciding the kind of cuisine that should be served, and then understanding the cooking chops of each participant. To expect too much would be foolish, and to keep it chip ‘n’ dippy would be amateurish. A delicate balance must be maintained between ambition and mediocrity before the host assigns responsibility. Too many cooks do spoil the broth, and too few can become unsatisfactory. A generally agreed upon number is seven participants, with one member dedicated to dessert.
Serious potluck-ers will also insist that table etiquette is essential, that the host must prime their table with appropriate cutlery, napkins, and adequate space to present each dish beautifully. Adding flowers is considered elegant; avoiding eggs and mayonnaise, sensible.
But, in a more flexible potluck universe, the idea has always been to commune, and relieve women of their cooking responsibilities so that they can also enjoy the festivities. In India, potlucks were once quite popular at kitty parties—a safe space where women collected a ‘kitty’ of money, and got together to unwind over food, games, and conversation. In a gathering full of women, cooking responsibilities were divided to unburden the host, and ensure that everyone present was participating.
Since most Indian families expect women to cook for guests during gatherings and festivities (so food is served hot), this practice of bringing pre-cooked food to a kitty party would’ve seemed like welcome respite. For a change, women could also sit back and join the proceedings instead of working behind the scenes. But in an unfortunate twist, men who attend potluck parties (at work) often tend to carry food cooked by their wives and mothers.
Today, potlucks are more popular than ever, especially at building societies and office gatherings where people get to know one another over a hodgepodge collection of food. Here, the unique culinary lineage of a dish becomes a point of conversation. And if chowmein showed up in a sea of idlis, it would be accepted without question.
In fact, the point of such gatherings is not just inclusion but representation, where participants become ambassadors of their regional cuisine. One nationally relevant example was a recent parliamentary protest at which a few suspended MPs of the opposition had gathered in the parliament complex to oppose the rise in prices.
As the protest extended into 50 hours, opposition parties took turns to churn out a variety of regional cuisines that included an idli-sambhar breakfast organised by DMK MP Tiruchi Siva, lunch with curd rice arranged by the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), and roti, daal, paneer and chicken tandoori brought by the TMC (Trinamool Congress). Ultimately, this peaceful protest became a show of solidarity, which is the latent ambition of every good-natured potluck.
While they may seem like a western concept, in some parts of India, potlucks have long been a part of local culture. At weddings in Coorg, aunts and close friends from the bride and groom’s families bring an assortment of food for high tea. These dishes are served at a long table towards the entrance of the wedding hall, and feature savouries and sweets that each family member has volunteered to make.
In all the seven weddings I’ve attended in Coorg I’ve found a tempting display of homemade snacks served at this table with little cups of tea. This tradition is also followed at wakes, perhaps to ease the load off the bereaved family. “For the Kodavas, food and community is a big deal, and both come together during a celebration or death,” explains Cheppudira Nikki, founder of The Food Lover Company.
But historically, these potlucks began like most traditions do—for practical reasons. Families travelling long distances would carry food for the journey, which also served as refreshments for tired and hungry guests. “It goes back to the days when a village community came together to participate in wedding preparations for the host family in their ‘okka’ or clan (patrilineal joint families). Okka members would also carry food and thindi (snacks) along with them, to help a busy household who were getting ready for a wedding,” says chef Anjali Ganapathy, who creates bespoke Kodava food experiences.
She also notes that the food at these potlucks changed with colonisation, and traditional fare of holige, kajaya, chiroti and koovalle puttu no longer dominate the spread. British influence on plantation life saw a broadening interest in baking, so much so that it is now synonymous with Kodava food culture. Today, a high tea table at a Kodava wedding is likely to include everything from crisp, golden chakkulis to delicate slices of lemon chiffon cake.
Before the covid-19 pandemic, enthusiastic cooks and cookbook lovers were warmly welcomed in a more informal and outdoorsy setting at the Goya Journal’s ‘Cookbook club’. Here, a popular cookbook was chosen by the event organisers, and participants were encouraged to bring a dish featured in it. They usually met at Bangalore’s Cubbon Park over shared food and conversation in a charming, picnic-like set-up. “I think it goes to show that people want to make connections, and food is such a great way to bond. The cookbook was just a premise for people to come together,” says Aysha Tanya, co-founder of The Goya Journal.
But despite its spirit of community, for some, potlucks are associated with a distinctly competitive air. “What happens if no one likes a particular dish at the table?” I ask my mother (also a potluck veteran). “Everyone gossips about it later,” she says, going on to relate a story about a watery sambar that was torn to shreds by a picky bunch of ladies. Which makes me wonder if potluck standards are often maintained mostly out of fear and stress.
Perhaps, the zenith of potluck success is a dish so good that everyone wants its recipe. But, I’m not entirely sure. At the most memorable potluck I’ve attended, the only dish I can truly remember is a big bowl of crunchy and sweet American chop suey. Despite the bewildering assortment of food that was served there—whatever our mothers could make at the very last minute—this potluck was rather special to me.
My father had just been posted to a sleepy little smudge on the map called Suratgarh, in Rajasthan. There was nothing around for miles except regulated housing, sand dunes, and the army canteen. The only entertainment I had was keeping a record of my chungi (hacky sack) scores, and assuming the unfair role of wicket-keeper, or worse, umpire, in every game of cricket that my brothers played. I’d not yet made friends, and was itching for company my own age.
So, this potluck party to celebrate the birthday of a classmate I knew only from proximity—he was my neighbour—had been the highlight of my life then. I now recall that my own addition to the table was a plastic dabba full of hot, homemade thenkuzhal, a dish that no one could pronounce, and therefore, had no desire to eat.
The potluck wasn’t memorable for its absurd collection of dishes (it was the 90s, so there was also jelly alongside the thenkuzhal). I remember this potluck because of a camel named Sridevi who had been hired for an hour that evening. With her arrival, our bored and silent group erupted in screams. The screams began when we mounted the tall, spindly-legged camel by turns, convinced that we were going to fall off what felt like a teetering mountain. But once Sridevi began her meditative journey amidst the dunes, it was impossible not to express our happiness as we floated into the desert night.
Over the course of my childhood, I’d been enrolled at 13 schools. And while the newness of every move was exciting, it was always daunting to begin again. It didn’t help that I was shy and reticent. But that night, screaming just as loudly as everyone else, I forgot to be inhibited by my shyness. And over shared plates of tangy American chop suey (the only thing all the kids ate) and a camel ride across exactly three moonlit dunes, I became friends with a group of strangers.
I am no expert on the subject of making new friends, as I’m unable to fully overcome my reticence even as an adult. And yet, years of changing homes and adapting to new places has made me believe that to form a relationship, a genuine exchange is essential, be it in the manner of food, stories, secrets, or experiences. Since that evening in Suratgarh, I’ve attended a few tolerable, and even some very good potlucks. But because I only recall that particular gathering with any real feeling, I have to conclude that a potluck is never really about the food. It’s about the sharing of it, and the people you choose to share it with.
Meera Ganapathi is an independent writer, and the founder of The Soup. She loves writing picture books for children and is the author of the chapter book ‘Paati vs UNCLE’ (Puffin India). Her short stories have appeared in various publications, including the anthology ‘A Case of Indian Marvels,’ published by AlephCo.