Church 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:
1 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!
2 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!
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.