Professional Potlucker

I grew up in a small (ish), mostly conservative, family oriented church. We attended the same church from my infancy until I struck out on my own and moved to Boise at the age of 20.

We were a three times a week kind of Christian family. We'd show up early on Sunday mornings because my mom was in charge of delivering Sunday School material to the various class rooms. We'd stay through Sunday School and the morning worship service. When the congregation grew large enough to support two morning services, we'd often stay for both because my dad was an usher. We'd not only return on Sunday night, but we'd arrive long before the pm service started because my mom had to be there for choir practice. Or cantata practice. My brother and I both spent a short time singing with the choir and I took on roles in some of the Easter and Christmas productions. Aaron and I both spent many services in the sound booth. As the soundman, we were also expected to show up early.

Then there were the midweek services and youth group. During my teen years, I was at every youth event. The camps, retreats, mission trips, and over-nighters. I went to every church sponsored Mariner game, bowling nights, after-church social, and Christmas party. I also volunteered to help the groundskeeper mow the church lawn.

I might have spent more time at church than I did at school.

During the first 20 years of my life, I built wonderful relationships with some of the greatest people I've ever known. I learned several worthwhile life lessons that I've taken with me into adulthood and will attempt to pass on to my own children.

But these days, I spend 40 hours or more every week in a corporate environment. My office is a shared work space. That's just a fancy way of saying I breathe the same recycled air as 200 other employees of varying health levels on a daily basis.

In my tenure with my employer, I have discovered that there is very little similarity between the church life of my youth and the professional life I now live. However, there is one thing - one skill that I learned during my days in that small church in Marysville that has given me great powers at my job.

I can own a potluck like a boss.

That is one thing that happened frequently enough at my childhood church to become habit. They held all church potlucks at least once a month with smaller potlucks for groups within the church body. Spread out over 20 years, the rough mathematical estimate will tell you that I attended at least 240 potlucks by the time I moved away from home.

Potlucks occur frequently in my office. Due to my job title, the connections I've made over the past eight years, and being a shared work space, I get invited to many of those potlucks.

There is nothing wrong with using a second plate for an extra layer of stability underneath your top plate - paperware is not typically known for strength or absorbency. However, people give you dirty looks when you walk away from the potluck table with two plates full of food. There is no shame in going back for seconds, but I've endeavored to never be that fat guy that doubles down on the first helping with a plate in each hand. To achieve that goal, I've developed some rock star strategies to maximizing the real-estate of the paper plate. If the Nazarene church taught me anything, it's how to fill a plate at a potluck with both skill and grace. It's a talent really, and I'd like to impart my years of wisdom to you - my readers.

1. Don't be afraid of the overhang. There is no rule stating that all of your food must fit within the confines of that small paper circle. For years, architects have exploited the cantilever. Just like the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon or the top floors of the CCTV Headquarters building in Beijing, the proper formation of your potluck construction might stick out a little beyond the edges of your Dixie plate. My recommendation is make sure your edible cantilever is a sturdy single item - stuff like a slice of pizza, a hot dog, or fried chicken. It's also best if the protruding food juts out above your wrist and is anchored with extra food on top.

2. Don't be afraid of mixed flavors. Are you one of those people that don't like your foods to touch? My wife is like that. Everything on the plate must be separate. I won't condemn that tactic for eating - it helps you preserve the delicate balance of flavors and allows you to taste everything individually. But here's a secret: If you don't want your food to touch, you will fail at potlucks. If you want to get the most out of the potluck experience, your foods will have to mix. I'm not suggesting you indiscriminately dump everything into one pile. But you must approach social eating with the awareness that certain dishes will run into each other. You accidentally drizzled a little nacho cheese onto that scoop of mandarin orange jello? Oh well. The cherry pie crust is soaking in the juices from the baked beans? So what. The ranch you poured onto those six pieces of lettuce has infected the cornbread? Cool. Whip cream, carrot sticks, and cocktail wieners? Not as bad of a combination as it sounds. The fact is, all that food is going to the same place. Presentation is for four star restaurants, not for potlucks.

3. Don't be afraid to put your plate down. Sometimes, a good plate of potluck goodness requires some creative reorganization. And sometimes, that can only be done with the use of both hands. So put the plate down. Move stuff around. Carry on. Keep in mind that it's usually better to build platforms than pyramids. That's not easy to do on the fly and may occasionally need a simple pause along the way before you add more grub to your plate. Sure, it may hold up the line behind you for a couple of brief seconds, but if the other attendees were wise, they'd do the same thing.

4. Don't be afraid to use what's all ready there. Common logic says to put the heavy stuff on the bottom and the light stuff on top. But sometimes, the opposite works better. All the tools to make your mountain of food travel from the buffet table to your dining seat is provided in an array of options. Use the heavier foods to prop up, support, or weigh down lighter foods. Rolls often provide great walls to hold in veggies. Cookies can hold down potato chips. Likewise, plastic spoons and forks can be used as a beam to bear the weight of hefty foods. And if something comes individually packaged or in its own wrapper - a cupcake for instance - there is no need to add that to the burden all ready piled on your plate. Carry it separately.

5. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification. I have a rule when eating ethnic foods. If I can't pronounce it, I probably don't want to eat it. Many people have similar boundaries at potlucks. If you can't tell what it is, keep moving. But there is a treasure trove of untouched deliciousness at potlucks because of this edict. There always seems to be one dish that goes undisturbed because no one knows what it is and no one is brave enough to take the first bite. If you don't know what something is, ask. That pile of goo with chunks of potato and something that looks like meat? It might be the best tasting tater-tot casserole to ever dance across your tongue. That funny little green thing sticking our from a sawed off crescent roll? It's a spear of asparagus wrapped in a slice of deli ham, smothered with cream cheese, then baked inside of Pillsbury's finest. It may look like a hodgepodge of chocolate pudding, graham crackers, Nilla wafers, butterscotch chips, and something you've never seen before but it tastes like heaven. These are dishes that I might have passed up on based on visual aesthetics alone. It's something unidentifiable. But I asked if someone knew what it was. There's always someone that the table that can identify a mysterious dish. Thanks to the insight of those knowledgeable potluck connoisseurs, I partook in some delicious dishes where I might have otherwise been oblivious of their existence.

That should cover everything. I hope these tips serve you well.

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