Posted on June 10th, 2016
I asked the owner of the rental house ten questions in my first email, and six of them were about the kitchen. I had been scrolling through property listings on AirBnB for many hours and, despite panoramic views, hot tubs, cable TVs, and ‘charming touches,’ no house had seemed suitable until this one. “Lakefront,” it said and, “rustic Maine character.” My fingers hovered over the ‘next’ button. “Great room with stone fireplace. Huge screened porch.” I paused, then scrolled further into the description. “Kitchen can handle large meal prep. Sleeps 23.” Hallelujah. It’s hard to plan a vacation with twenty of your closest friends, but Tuesday Night Potluck is doing it again. We’ve added several members, two babies, and one dog since the last time we all spent a week in Maine together. Knowing us, however, the hardest part of this expansion will not be finding a house or coordinating money or even getting along for a week: it will be bringing enough butter.
Tuesday Night Potluck was founded on one guiding tenet: show up. It doesn’t matter what you bring, or how much, or even if you burn the bejeezus out of it, freak out, start over, put in too much salt this time, and then bring it anyways. It doesn’t matter if you skip a week, and then two weeks, and then maybe three months. Each of us has gone through phases where we pulled back, turned in, stayed home for awhile. Some of us have actually left, moved, fallen out of touch, then come back and called and starting showing up again. The reason Potluck works is that it is always there to return to. The dynamics ebb and flow as the individuals within it live their lives, but the community is strong enough to absorb these fluctuations in energy, attention, investment. Potluck lives and breathes its own life, grows through its own changes, and leans into the challenges of a family that is chosen, not born. We show up, and we bring what we have, even when that is only our broken-down selves. Particularly when it is only our broken-down selves.
Like a family, we are very used to eating together, but unlike a family, we do not often plan or cook entire meals together. In the normal course of things, we simply bring whatever we have in the fridge or whatever new recipe we’ve been thinking about trying. One week I might make an elaborate stew, the next bring a big bag of chips and a jar of salsa, the next – exhausted and late – rummage through my pantry, come out with a jar of pickles and a weird box of seeded crackers I bought on a whim last month, and hustle out the door. Sometimes everyone has made soup and we have to do courses, each person circling back with their empty bowl to refill, while other times I’ve brought weird seeded crackers and someone else has brought just a block of cheese. We don’t even blink at these kismet moments anymore.
On our first vacation together, we realized that our normal system wouldn’t work. On the simplest of levels, none of us would be coming from anywhere else, so the very premise of a potluck fell apart. In practical consideration, a dozen people all trying to prepare disparate dishes in one kitchen, one modest kitchen, at the same time seemed like the fastest way to strain our relationships. So we divvied up the nights and in couples or trios took turns cooking dinner for everyone. Partners planned their meals ahead, brought ingredients in bulk, and headed to the kitchen on the afternoon of their assigned day.
It was a new experience from both sides of the stove. As cooks, we were unused to preparing in such quantity or with particular attention to the restrictions or tastes of every person. Part of the beauty of potlucks is that not everyone eats every dish, and no one dish has to feed all. As diners, we were used to contributing. People kept trying to edge in and help, even when it wasn’t their day, and conversation on the deck where we sat sipping pre-dinner cocktails revolved around how simultaneously luxurious and uncomfortable it felt to lounge while our friends scrubbed, chopped, and sauteed so close by. In the end, we had some spectacular meals, made all more special by the fact that we all ate the same thing, sat around the same big table, and helped clean up while the evening’s chefs relaxed by the fire.
This year, with our expanded community and expanded rental kitchen, we’ve decided to go one step further and assign cooking partners outside of our regular households. No one will be planning, shopping, or prepping with someone they are used to cooking with. Just as we have embraced eating in community, this year we will cook in community. It is a tangible symbol of the ways that Potluck is committed to creating an intimacy that transcends romantic relationships or the nuclear family. Those things which are typically reserved for behind closed doors or after guests have left are embraced as a part of what it means to really know and love another person. We listen to each other’s mean-spirited gripes, we know where the measuring spoons live in each other’s drawers, and yes, we’d even come over and clean the bathroom if you needed us to. When we bring those things in instead of pushing them to the corners of life, the pressure to be prepared, to be presentable, is relieved.
On vacation, we become both hosts and guests, and we change the way we interact with each other by changing our environment. We love our everyday community where no one person bears the burden of providing or receiving, but vacation allows us to experiment, to try on different roles. Planning and preparing a well-rounded meal that will make everyone happy is a stressful project, but it is also the fullest expression of the smaller generosities we practice every week. If it goes horribly wrong, the fault is all yours; but if it is a glorious meal with much happy groaning and many second helpings, the satisfaction is also multiplied. In our everyday lives, the risks and stresses of hosting everyone are unsustainable, but in the expanded week-long potluck vacation, we can go all in, if only to remind ourselves why it is we share the burden the rest of the year. The extremes of life are important in their balance, even when that balance is seven kinds of soup.