Strangefoods(Or How I learned to stop worrying and love the potluck)

One of the first indicators that I would have a rocky relationship with the Mennonite Church was surely my early abhorrence of the venerable institution known as the Church potluck. While most of the well-adjusted Mennonite adults of my acquaintance have fond memories of childhoods in the Church basement indulging in heaped-up plates of immeasurable delight, I remember only the horror of the long, long tables full of mystery and dread.

These weren’t the Mennonite foods of yore. There were no breads or desserts that could trace their lineage back to the Netherlands, Russia, Prussia or even Manitoba. Nor were they the exotic foods of the Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites who made up more than half of the Church of my childhood. I don’t know if I’d have appreciated these any more, but at least I would have had the benefit of a history lesson.

No. The foods that make up the nightmares of my nostalgia were creatures of the cold war, every bit as horrifying to me as the thought of a madman in the pentagon or a doomsday device.

Like everything in those halcyon days, the foods of the potlucks represented two divergent political leanings. The right wing of the congregation embraced the wonders of capitalism and brought casseroles whose recipes they found in velveeta packages or in the advertising spots that interrupted Charlie Brown TV specials. They brought foods that celebrated the miracles of processing – jello salads in unnatural colours with suspicious shredded vegetables folded within; casseroles with layers upon layers of Kraft food products; noodle dishes that oozed condensed soup. It was as if this branch of the Church got lost in the supermarket, threw the packaged goods randomly together and then proudly displayed them for all to see and consume.

They were free market enthusiasts run amok.

But the reds were no better. It may be tempting to imagine that the left wing of the Church was somehow superior to its capitalist counterpart. Its members did, indeed, avoid the wild displays of processed food concoctions that represented the excesses of food culture in the 1970s.  But if the right wing was carried away with the lure of consumption, the left was zealous in its commitment to the common good and its willingness to sacrifice flavour.  It was a severe kind of food ethic, its proponents carrying around their worn copies of the More with Less Cookbook like bulky versions of the Little Red Book. More a statement than a pleasure, the foods from the left wing were usually mushy and brown; they were creations composed of lentils, breaded things or casseroles with brown rice or whole wheat noodles, all of them tasting vaguely of celery and onions and not much else.

Most people, of course, did not see the potluck as an embodiment of cold war divisions. If they had been called upon to imagine the analogy, they would most likely, in fact, say that the potluck was a symbol of peace — of the ability of these two culinary factions to come together over food despite political differences. Such people still get glossy-eyed over discussions of potlucks.

Only I saw it for what it truly was – Mutually Assured Destruction (of our taste buds).

Of course I left as soon as I could, thinking I could be free of the potluck. But it was too late. Before I knew it, there were potlucks everywhere – dinner parties with friends, casual weeknights with the neighbours, even a few weddings. Potlucks were raining down like bombs in a blackly comedic finale. I could almost hear the music.

I stopped fighting it and usually brought dessert. Some of them weren’t so bad.  They occasionally even served wine. Which was a far cry from the potlucks of my youth where we considered ourselves lucky to have water with fluoridation.

But I still dream of the bunker where I could hide away, safe from mysterious casseroles. I know that a small potluck isn’t so bad. We can survive it. We can thrive. But when do they ever stay small?

The Potluck Antidote

You know I wouldn’t suggest an actual potluck cocktail – the product of a crazy thought where you just ask a bunch of people to bring random beverages and then you throw them together in a glass.

No, this is an antidote to the potluck. It takes the ingredients of a classic palette-cleanser and pours it into a cocktail. This is basically lemon sorbet with vodka, or a lemon drop on crushed ice. Simple and pure. Drink it alone or with friends. Just not at a potluck.potluck antidote 2

  • 1 1/2 oz vodka
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 2 dashes citrus bitters
  • a surprising amount of crushed ice

Mix vodka, lemon, syrup and bitters in a glass. Fill glass half full of crushed ice. Pour in cocktail. Top with remaining crushed ice and pile on top of the glass. Garnish with a piece of lemon and serve with a straw.

I made this in a mint julep cup but if you don’t have one of these, go ahead and just use any old glass. Do drink it with a straw, though, as the ice and cocktail should mingle as you are drinking it.