A Plea for Church Potluck Reformation

Potluck DinnerChurch potlucks have been a common denominator of every church I have attended, regardless of denomination, geographic location, racial affiliation or age demographic.  Since I was a tiny church rat, I remember standing on tiptoe with my paper plate, and peering over the long church tables that groaned under the strain of tuna casseroles, jello salads, questionable spaghetti dishes and the standard buckets of cold, fried chicken, purchased by busy families on the way to church.

As a child, I could avoid the nasty stuff, but as I grew older, the pressure got worse.

 All of us know the feeling of gingerly trying to avoid some of the weirder foods along the gauntlet, only to have the nice lady behind us helpfully shout, “Oh, you won’t want to miss my Hungarian goulash; it’s got extra garlic and a mystery cream!”  Yeah, some of the food is good, but most of the time, potluck tables are filled with what can only be described as mediocre, institutional food, usually found in reform schools and prisons.

In his blog, Adam Bottiglia, a Portland Seminarian, illustrates well the problem facing churchmen in pursuit of culinary excellence:

Food, one of the greatest gifts to mankind, a symbol of our unity, our glory, our distinctiveness, yea even our very souls, has been taken by the church and profaned in the potluck. Repent, I plead, and turn from your casseroles and gelatinous creations. Make foods in keeping with good taste and flavor. If food is relational what are we saying to our friends and neighbors when we invite them to church and offer them overdone Mostacholi à la bland with a side of 15 layer Jell-o dessert? Are there no cooks in the House, are we without culinary prowess? Do we think that, since everyone eats, anything will suffice?

Let’s be honest, folks, our church potluck dinners need a reformation!  In the spirit of a German monk who loved his food, I am nailing my 5 potluck theses to the door of the church kitchen:

Choose a GREAT cook to prepare the main course.  This could be roasting a turkey, grilling fajitas, or fixing up several tubs full of tamales, but let’s make sure that at least the main course is OUTSTANDING.  Sorry, Mrs. Biddle, we’re just not interested in the strange, curdled mystery goo that oozes out of your crock pot!

Have several side dishes catered.  It is NOT a sin to purchase food for church member consumption.  We don’t ask for homemade donuts to serve between Sunday School and the morning worship service, so why do we always insist on homemade food for church dinners?  Here’s a concept:  Restaurants cook better than most of our members.  Let’s let the pros do it for a change!

Don’t keep terrible dishes coming by lying to the cooks that their food tastes great.  Only God knows how many repeat potluck offenders could have been eliminated if only well-meaning church members hadn’t choked down that awful forkful of hash and sputtered, “Oh, it’s delicious, Mrs. Webster.”  Stop the insanity!  If the dish is terrible, speak the truth in love, so that future generations will not suffer.

We don’t always have to eat dinner.  Why not have a dessert night, or a finger food fellowship, or, even better, bring your favorite restaurant pie and coffee night?  Somehow the American church has somehow been led to believe that the Bible says, “Where two or more Christians are gathered together, a potluck dinner will be sitting in the midst of you.”  There’s nothing wrong with cookies, peanuts and punch once in a while, especially if you’re not a frequent flyer.

Let the people eat pizza!  When in doubt, speed-dial your friends at Pizza Hut.  The more traditional saints won’t like it, but I have NEVER seen a frown on church members’ faces when the Pizza Hut delivery boy walks in the back carrying stacks of hot, fresh pizza.  Combine some juicy thick crust pizza with tubs full of ice-cold sodas, and you may just be able to wipe out the memory of the ghost of potluck past.

 I have a dream, that my child will one day only know about lousy potluck food the same way she knows about record albums and rotary phones:  from her daddy’s memory. 

I have seen the future, and I see no casseroles.  And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

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23 Responses to A Plea for Church Potluck Reformation

  1. 5najeras says:

    I had managed to block out all memories of pot lucks until this post. Thanks. I agree wholeheartedly that potlucks are of the devil, but if you should find yourself at one always remember one simple rule. Never under any circumstances get stuck in the last half of the line because you can be sure that all the KFC and recognizable dishes will be gone… :)

  2. Ben says:

    Jim,

    While I have been to my share of bland potlucks, you really ought to swing by our church on the first Sunday of the month. While there certainly are a number of casseroles, most of them are not bad. Still, for the discriminating taste-buds, the following are observed with some frequency: venison, sushi, chili, barbecue pork, brisket, fried chicken (homemade and store-bought), mashed potatoes, poppyseed chicken, fresh fruit and veggies, and a stunning assortment of HOME-MADE pies, cakes, and other desserts.

    The ladies of our church bring their A-game. Maybe it’s a Southern thing. Or maybe, being a product of the Midwest, the horrors of “hot dish” and congealed “salad” have warped your mind. Pizza? Restaurant pies? What are you smoking?

    Ben

  3. Ok, Ben, so what are some of the things that make your church rise above the common potluck? Is it just being born “Southern”, or are there other tips that you could give little Mrs. Swenson and her horrific gurgling pot of mystery stew?

  4. Matt S says:

    Potlucks are a great proving ground for the mission field.

    Questions such as, “What is in this dish?” only make it harder to choke it down once you have the answer. If you can get through a church potluck you can make it on any missions trip!

  5. Pastor Doug always ate at home before arriving at the potluck. He then would grab a diet coke and walk from table to table meeting and greeting the folks. “I’m too busy getting to know the flock to eat the potluck meal,” he would say. In this way, he avoided the pressure to sample casseroles from hell, and he was celebrated for doing so. Genius.

  6. Gregg says:

    Maybe we can take a more holistic approach to this pandemic! I say we start manditory Church membership classes that include extensive training in 8-10 pot luck dishes. We could have A-N learn main dishes, and M-Z learn deserts and side dishes. Lets make Evangelicals, epicurieans!

  7. clara ost says:

    for me it was more of the ‘fun and fellowship”. I don’t have a lot of bad memories of casseroles. I do like the idea of serving an excellent well cooked meat and then others providing the sides. At one church pot luck there were only 10 bowls of red jello- nothing else! If the pot lucks are to introduce new members to the church, they could certainly stand major improvement..

  8. Wow, my own mother chimes in. This is a big day at “Word to the Wise”.

    I, too, remember having fun with the other families, mom, and enjoyed the singing time following the potlucks at the People’s Chapel in Pharr. I’m specifically referring to the mediocre food we all have to grin and force down, and, of course, this is a humorous post as well :-)

  9. Echo_ohcE says:

    A sure and certain proof of the love for the brothers that God gives to us by his Spirit that we can stomach potlucks graciously. Ha ha!

  10. RubeRad says:

    My church often jokes by saying Pot “Providence”, as if the word “luck” is a denial of God’s sovereignty.

    I know my wife is a great cook, but partly that’s because we have similar adventurous tastes — unlike yourself, Albino. I remember one time you & Shawn visited me in Seattle and I took you to this great Indian lunch buffet, and after grumbling through it, as soon as we walked out the door, you said “OK, now let’s go get a burger”!

    My point is, we tried for a long time bringing stuff we liked to our monthly church lunches, but our brothers and sisters spoke the truth in love to us without saying a word. Our dishes came back virtually untouched! Eventually, we figured out, you gotta give the people what they want. Cheese, cheese, and more cheese! If it’s drowning in melted cheese, it will get eaten!

    I gotta say to little Mrs. Swenson too, guilt-tripping somebody into eating your own dish is pretty clearly a party foul. Unless you really like something and want to tell the world, the policy on discussing who made what and what tastes disgusting should be Don’t ask, Don’t tell!

  11. danielbalc says:

    I can’t believe you would give away a trade secret albino. That’s low man, especially with the amount of Ldubers that read your blog.

    I follow in the footsteps of my Father, always have, always will.

  12. Three things:

    1 Rube, at least you tried to raise the level of cuisine. And you are right. I HATE Indian food. But based on the crazy things I’ve eaten in Mexico, I should get a few points — i.e. fried grasshoppers in Oaxaca (tasted like cheetos).

    2. One more reform: LET US SIT AT TABLES!!! There are few things more annoying that loading a poor wretch down with paper plates, a plastic cup and plastic silverware, then forcing me to balance it all on my lap. Come on guys, go to the trouble of setting up tables, so we can eat LIKE CIVILIZED HUMAN BEINGS!

    3. Daniel — So you don’t want me to share about your pastors’ lounge/private theatre with the 60-inch plasma screen and the lounge chairs, either?

  13. Gregg says:

    Once again that is why we need to have a mandatory training time for pot lucks. Raising the food bar, (dare we call it the “Chocolate Bar?”) requires disciple, dedication, and a dollop of delicious dishes. Under my programmatic endeavors we could teach new church members the basics of faith AND the basics of cooking. I am working on this as a book. I am calling it “Purpose driving Pot lucks.” Anyone interesting in pre-purchasing the book?
    Of course the current discussion lends to some problems. What happens if someone from a different ethnic food group joins the church do we require them to change their culinary tastes but that is for a different thread.

  14. danielbalc says:

    The most recent “pot luck” type venture at LWC was at the end of Mission conference when we have an ethnic foods night with tables from many different countries. Then at least you are expecting weird foods. The line for lumpia wrapped around the room.

  15. Laura says:

    I have been attending my church for almost five years and have not been to one church potluck! Why? We don’t have them! If we have a congregational meal, it is either a BBQ with all the food prepared and served by a man who caters as his ministry, or we are assigned SPECIFIC foods to bring – and twice we have had a thanksgiving meal in the fall, again with assigned food (so the dishes are recognizable as “normal” Thanksgiving dishes) – no one is suprised, and it is food the pastors eat! IS this a novel approach, or a control-issue…hmmm…but in any case, I’ve always had great meals at our church gatherings!

  16. Sounds like you guys have been “reformed”! Great news…

  17. Laura says:

    Hmmm…I don’t think I get your comment, Albino…

    In any case, I just think that the experience with our new congregation is that those in charge of meals ministries decided this was a better way to have church suppers, instead of the “traditional portluck”…

  18. renee says:

    Long live the church potluck in all its glorius forms. I very much enjoyed reading all the comments. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

  19. Melinda says:

    Maybe I’m a bit thin-skinned, but I think this is a mean-spirited post. As a kid (pre-teen/teen), my mother would make me go to all the ladies and tell them how nice their item was and ask for the recipe. Even if I didn’t really like it all that much, the ladies would always be so happy to write their recipes down for me. Some would tell me how they came to have the recipe (passed down from their mother, or found on the back of a can). Of course, I didn’t realize it then, but it really helped bridge the generation gap.

    It’s the thought that counts and those who bring awful tasting items to a church potluck have at least TRIED, which is more than a lot of people do. We all know those who never bring anything, but are the first to complain about the food. If you don’t like the fruit salads and tuna casseroles, bring something different and maybe enlighten everyone to new tastes.

  20. Steve Nodal says:

    Jim,

    This is so funny and so true!!
    I posted on FaceBook before I read this, but I’ll say it here too: At our church we call them “Multiple-Choice Dinners”, since we don’t do Pot and we don’t believe in Luck!

    I can’t wait to show this to my Pastor!!

    Thanks,
    Steve Nodal

    ps.
    To Melinda: LYING IS A SIN!! I hope you have asked for forgiveness? :)

  21. Steve, Glad to see the truth set another brother free.

  22. Chris Leon says:

    Hey, now that’s no lie. We are asking/coercing people to eat things that are fattening, bland, and sometimes spoiled, and then praying for them when they end up in the hospital. As a Baptist who is noticeably absent at almost every church potluck, I confess that I have been tempted to crash a 7th day adventist potluck to eat some healthy vegetarian meals.

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