Slices of Life: Confessions of a potluck failure

I start with the best intentions. I fully plan to make a dish that fits in amidst the chicken and rice casseroles and baked bean hot dishes. Then I start cooking.

Jill Pertler
Jill Pertler

Editor's note: This is a classic column originally published in 2011.

The term “potluck” was coined over 500 years ago, putting a label on the concept of a communal meal where each guest brings a dish to share. The idea was that if everyone brought a little something, there’d be a little something for everyone. The practice caught on and has been flourishing in church basements ever since.

The feast known as potluck conjures up images of casseroles, slow cookers, pans of brownies, peanut butter krispie bars and, of course, Jell-O. Lots and lots of Jell-O.

Although I am able to make Jell-O, I don’t often offer it up at potlucks. I prefer getting creative with savory dishes and therein lies my downfall. I am a potluck failure.

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I start with the best intentions. I fully plan to make a dish that fits in amidst the chicken and rice casseroles and baked bean hot dishes. Then I start cooking.

When I’m in the kitchen, I get caught up in the moment. I find it impossible to follow a recipe and instead practice the “little bit of this, little bit of that” system of cooking. I call it the energizer method, because I tend to keep going and going.

My youngest son summed up my culinary technique best when he said, “I wish you’d just make us food. Your problem is you always have to add ingredients.”

He’s right. I can’t help myself. I like to push the flavor envelope. This is suitable for an exotic spread, but probably not as appropriate for your typical potluck.

So, when I attend one of these communal meals, I fill my plate; I fill my stomach; and I leave with a casserole dish that is (regrettably) also full.

This has gone on for years. I was beginning to think when it came to potlucks I had none of the second syllable.

Until, quite unexpectedly, I discovered a potluck triumph in a tomato salad called bruschetta. I made the dish for a family reunion earlier this summer and the bowl not only emptied, but people requested the recipe. Of course, these people were my relatives; their taste buds may be genetically similar to mine. Still, it felt good.


I was empowered.

It was logical for me to want to share the joy of my bruschetta at a second potluck with friends last week. The night before the event, I chopped the tomatoes, added the ingredients, both secret (green olive juice) and not so secret (garlic). I put the bowl in the fridge to allow the flavors to mingle — sort of like guests do at a potluck.

The next day, I prepared to dazzle with my dish. Slices of chewy, crusty bread went on a platter to act as a base for the tomato-licious salad. When I opened the fridge, however, there wasn’t a tomato chunk in sight. My bruschetta had gone missing. Not missing as in pushed to the back of the shelf behind the milk; missing as in vanished. Disappeared. Nowhere to be found.

Certainly I was mistaken. I looked again. I opened the freezer. I checked the sink. Even searched the dishwasher. There was no bruschetta — or evidence of bruschetta — anywhere.

My potluck was imminent and I didn’t have time (or ingredients) to make another batch. Meanwhile, my stomach was as empty as my salad bowl.

The situation forced me into an abyss far worse than attending a potluck with a dish that doesn’t get tasted: attending a potluck with no dish at all. Did I dare even go?

To potluck or not potluck: that was the question.

My stomach won out in the end. I attended the party ready and willing to consume a piece of humble pie. Turns out there was no need. The good thing about potlucks is there is always an overabundance of food — and friendly people.


I never did find my bruschetta. In a house filled with hungry teenagers, I guess a prudent mom might want to think about labeling sacred potluck items as “Do not touch,” so as to avoid midnight snack raids. Live and learn.

I used to believe I was a potluck failure. Now I know better. I also know there are far worse things in life, not the least of which might be losing your bruschetta.

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.

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