Repas partagé, aka potluck, is recognized linguistically by both our official languages, although the latter sounds far less romantic than the former. Still, the concept of potluck has been romanticized pretty much since the beginning of time.
When a company I worked for decided to have potluck to celebrate its 10th anniversary, I held strong to the tradition of the communal feast and opted to provide the hungry horde with buns, either as a stomach-starter pre-meal or as a leftovers mop just prior to dessert. (At my own family repas, he or she providing the yeast product is adulated, a hero worshiped as reverently as the Grand Poobah of the Water Buffaloes.) To my complete embarrassment at our company party, however, I discovered that when it comes to the modern-day phenomenon known as potluck etiquette, the bread bringer is often looked upon as little more than the crumbs their contribution leaves on the floor.
In the Middle Ages, anything edible was warmly accepted at potluck; apparently the event has evolved from sharing an enjoyable meal to fighting for bragging rights over platter presentation. Participants often slave over a hot stove for hours using ingredients that no one in the Western world can pronounce. Nothing short of a Martha Stewart masterpiece is good enough. Food is no longer strewn about a central table for all to attack but is introduced one platter at a time, with accompanying testimonials such as, “I used a pinch of this and a dab of that and let it softly simmer until the yolk began to parfait,” or “this recipe was passed down from my great-great-great-great grandmother in Sicily, 1806. It’s a family secret.” Each presentation and analysis drew hearty applause from the hungry onlookers.
When it was time for me to introduce my buns I was stymied for a tale to tell. “I brought 48 dinner rolls,” I started. The crowd appeared to be waiting attentively for the chili or soup they apparently believed must have been riding shotgun. To their dismay, I produced no side dish but rather a sad story of a young, underpaid clerical worker who put in long, hard hours at the office only to trudge home on foot to an above-the-garage apartment half way across town, stopping only at the grocery store where I waited impatiently in line behind the elderly lady with the impressive penny collection in her change purse and the unfortunate fellow who couldn’t produce his club member card for 10 percent off his asparagus. I relayed these details of my hours spent leading up the partagé ... the hardship I endured in reaching the decision to bring 48 dinner rolls instead of 36, having to choose white over brown and fresh over stale, even though the stale was a full dollar cheaper. But I found very little sympathy coming my way, only stares of scorn.
“At least my buns did not require any prep work,” I shot back at them (not audibly, of course, just inside my head). “No standing in line to use the microwave to heat up a midnight creation that takes the entire length of the meal to reheat. Trust me, tater tots are better served with the main course rather than after the brownies and mincemeat pie.”
One thing I had to wonder as I walked home later that night: Since etiquette insists that non-homemade dishes are unacceptable, how did the shrimp ring find its way onto the table. I knew none of my co-workers were talented enough to catch the shrimp themselves, de-head them and lay them in a circular fashion on the plate. Why was my offering of bread any different?
Maybe I’ll also bring butter next time, see how that goes.