I wanted to do something visual for this prompt, but I simply didn’t have the tools or skills to do what I envisioned. So I took the image as far as I could, then turned back to my comfort zone of writing.
The fellowship hall is filling with the voices and bodies of people I normally see upstairs in the sanctuary. The women all move with purpose, not quite in frenzy, but certainly in a hurry. They stake out seats for the family, marking the area with cups and flatware brought from home. Then, reaching into a picnic basket or cardboard box or tote bag, each woman produces her “dish to pass”—or maybe two. Most reach in again to pull out a serving fork, spoon or tongs. A few forgot. That’s okay. They can borrow from the jumble in the big drawer in the kitchen.
“Dish to pass” is a misnomer. We won’t pass the dishes at all. Instead, three or four long tables have been placed end to end, covered in matching tablecloths, to create one giant, gingham airstrip ready for the many foodcrafts to land. And they do. As each dish glides toward the table, I see most are labeled underneath or on a handle. Our own family’s glass pans have had the same masking tape labels for so many years, our name long ago faded with repeated washing and baking. But Mom and I—and most of the other church ladies—know our dishes by the color, shape and placement of those bits of golden tape.
The men gather off to the side of the room, some standing, some sitting, all gazing out at nothing even though they are conversing with each other. Eye contact is not necessary when discussing weather, crops and news from cousins two counties over.
The other children and I pass time filling our brought-from-home cups from the stainless steel coffee pot—the one that’s unplugged and sweating, filled with cold lemonade. As we sip, we inch toward the food table, searching for the tator tot casserole least likely to have mushrooms, and sizing up the slices of pie and the fudginess of the brownies to see which side of the table will offer the largest, yummiest dessert.
Soon the table is fully loaded with hot and cold containers of every shape and size. Square Ecko. Round Pyrex. Rectangular Reynolds. Oval Corning. The room smells of fried chicken, scalloped corn, fresh rolls, chocolate cake and coffee.
I’m dying to fill a plate. But I don’t dare rush to be first in line. First, my mother would consider it rude. And second, I won’t know what’s hiding under the top layer of each casserole. Are those cheesy cracker crumbs covering saucy sliced potatoes, or did some sly grandma put cauliflower in there? No, it’s best to have a few people go ahead and reveal the lower strata of the deeper dishes.
And yet, if I am too far back in line, the most desirable foods may be empty when it’s my turn to self-serve. I must have Mrs. Peterson’s chicken and noodles, and I’ll be disappointed if I miss out on the jello salad Mom and I made earlier today; it has walnuts in it!
So I stall just enough to fall in line behind an elderly couple, a bachelor farmer, and a family with a new baby. Just in time. Mrs. Swanson claps her hands and tells the pastor it’s time to begin. He welcomes us, thanks the church ladies for their delicious work, and leads us in singing the Doxology.
And it is time to begin.
I watch as the people ahead of me excavate the mystery casseroles. They do well. By the time I reach the start of the buffet, nearly every secret ingredient has been revealed.
Moving slowly through the line, I take a spoonful of this and a dollop of that. I go in for a second scoop of scalloped corn, but set the spoon down when Mom shoots me a don’t-be-greedy-look-how-many-mouths-we-have-to-feed glare. As I survey the other options, I make sure my plate includes a few essential ingredients: a fried chicken drumstick, green bean casserole with French-fried onions, cheesy potatoes, jello with no chunks of fruit, and at least one casserole containing water chestnuts.
All these items must be strategically arranged—like next to like, or each positioned as its own island. The last thing I want is to reach my seat and find that my raspberry jello has infected my cheesy-chicken-broccoli-rice. Dad may be okay with those bizarre combinations, but I am not.
The food progresses from main dishes to hot sides to vegetable salads to fruit salads to bread and butter … and finally to dessert. Cakes, pies, cookies, pies, fluff, pies and maybe even ice cream. I know Mom will come back for her dessert. And she wishes I would do the same. But I just can’t. I cannot run the risk that the lemon bars and chocolate butterscotch cookies will be gone. So I nudge my foods to clear a space and perch one or two sweets on the edge of my plate, as far as possible from the savory casseroles that could ruin a good cookie with a smear of gravy or cheese.
I carry my plate cautiously, as if walking a beam with a book on my head and an egg on a spoon. I dare not breathe until I reach my place. At last, I set my full plate down on the table, pull back my folding chair and squeeze in between Mom and Mr. Larson. I barely hear the old ladies remark about what a good balance of foods I chose. But I smile and move my desserts to a protected zone when Mr. Pearson compliments my choice of cookie. At last, I unroll my fork and knife from the white paper napkin, lay the napkin in my lap, and begin the feast.
* * *
Norma observed this about the essay: “It conveys a young person’s emotional encounter with church potluck as event—not the individual people, but the community event. Phenomenal details, told through action. Again, a marvelous sense of the dramatic.”
And Paul said, “I was there, right back in the First Lutheran basement.”
Even though the three of us attended these potlucks as children nearly a generation apart, our experience was the same. And Paul, who still attends such functions in the same church basement, says the description still rings true—even though more of the food is store-bought, and the church ladies have the luxury of a nice, big dishwasher. But they’re still using those same plates.
Norma and I see fewer potlucks today, and the ones we do attend in our suburban congregations are, well, different. More salads than casseroles. Sometimes even catered or purchased in bulk from club stores. The food is fuel, and not always the best fuel. So different from years past, when women brought dishes that would show their cooking prowess. As Norma put it, you wouldn’t bring your best food; steak would be too uppity. But you wanted to have the empty serving dish, and everyone wanted in on the race to get so-and-so’s pie.