Herald Journal Columns
Jan. 30, 2006, Herald Journal

Not how Mama used to make it

By DAVE (IVAN) COX

Potluck meals can be frightening affairs.

This is not to say that one can’t find good food at one of these events. The problem is the uncertainty.

The idea of a potluck makes sense. Sharing food and fellowship to achieve result that can, with luck, be greater than the sum of the individual elements.

But any venture that has luck in the title should give us pause.

I tend to be very cautious about these things, and before I play gastronomic roulette at a potluck dinner, I want to know exactly who the other players are.

Let’s face it. We all know individuals who, while they may be fine people, do not inspire much confidence in the kitchen.

They might be an ideal choice if you are looking for someone to play golf with, or to share a pint down at the pub, but they may not be the person you would call when you are looking for a chef.

In spite of this, there comes a time when most of us end up at a potluck affair.

As we pick our way through these culinary mine fields, we are faced with a variety of choices.

A veteran potluck survivor knows that portion size is critical. By taking only small portions, you can minimize the risk.

If you do make a mistake, you won’t have to deal with a large quantity of the offending substance. If you find something good, you can always go back for more.

The first element of luck at a potluck is finding things one can actually identify among the offerings.

But, even if you think you have identified an item, it pays to be careful.

The vital thing to remember is that you can never rely on appearance alone to determine the safety of a dish.

The reason for this is the illusion factor.

The illusion factor means that we can’t assume that an item that appears familiar will be safe.

Some of the most vile concoctions imaginable have been covertly delivered to a potluck, and passed off as real food.

Salads are the riskiest of potluck fare, because any number of evils can be concealed in their depths.

Similarly, anything with a sauce is suspect, because of the inherent bio-hazard concealing ability of the average sauce.

Some potluck participants are masters of camouflage, and the most innocent-appearing morsels can contain startling surprises. Tackle one of these gems, and you will know your luck has run out.

A friend and I were discussing this last weekend, and we were reminded of some notorious examples.

My friend normally enjoys chicken salad, so when a giant bowl of chicken salad was deployed at one particular gathering, she thought she was on familiar ground.

She detected something a bit peculiar about this dish, however, and made some inquiries.

She discovered that the party who had inflicted this dish on the assembly had made some substitutions.

“I was out of mayonnaise, so I used bleu cheese and ranch dressing instead,” the woman confessed.

As if this weren’t enough, she also threw in some pineapple, and, according to my friend’s description, “about a pound” of pepper.

In the sauce category, the winner was spaghetti with lima beans.

I am all for experimentation, but the fact is, some people are just not that good at it.

I have been cooking for as long as I can remember, and I have never been very hung up on recipes. Recipes are fine as a starting point, but cooking is an art more than it is a science.

The best cooks can throw together a memorable meal from whatever they have on hand.

The problem is, some people don’t seem to have a feel for which elements will or will not work together.

Experimentation can result in some unexpected combinations that can be extremely satisfying. It can also result in combinations that are very disturbing indeed.

Unleashing these noxious concoctions on unsuspecting potluck attendees is just mean.

Naturally, there are some things that different cooks prepare in different ways.

Family or regional preferences can influence the way things are done.

One of the joys of travelling can be trying new foods and local specialties.

But, when it comes to food, it is OK to be different, but not so good to be bizarre.

The illusion factor can work in the opposite way, too. Things that seem exotic may be quite simple.

My sister tells the story of a guy in her office. Everyone raved about the fabulous meatballs that he brought to every office potluck. They begged, but he would never divulge his secret recipe.

The mystery was solved one morning when his co-workers caught him assembling his specialty. The secret recipe consisted of a bag of frozen meatballs, and a bottle of ketchup.

Another danger with the whole potluck scheme is the fact that food preparation and storage conditions may be less than ideal.

E. coli croquettes and botulism salad have no place on the potluck table.

Hot foods should be kept hot, and cold foods should be kept cold, and I prefer not to rely on luck to ward off food poisoning when these conditions are not maintained.

Some things just don’t hold up very well in a potluck environment, and thought should be given to the time element, as well.

No one wants to get tangled up with a vulcanized cheese sauce that has been heated for a few hours past its prime.

You might find some tasty treats or a fun new recipe at these events, but if you really want to enjoy the experience, the best thing to bring to a potluck might be a healthy dose of cynicism.


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