Unsettling the table

Over the past few weeks, I’ve given much effort to exploring the poetics of food. As a consequence – of which I am well aware – my column has been a gross failure for those who want only to read about 10 Great Mason-Jar Salads. This week, I’ll retrain my focus, and return to the table.
A few weeks ago, I went to a potluck with a group of people, many of whom I knew only as acquaintances, and I have been reflecting on the experience for quite some time. For one, there was the food itself, which left me nothing short of impressed. The guests really tried, and the ones who didn’t brought wine. There were homemade cheese balls sculpted into pumpkins, deep-dish pies with lattice crusts, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and so on. Nowhere to be found was the otherwise-ubiquitous-at-student-potlucks supermarket sugar cookie.
Yet the experience suggested that the food itself, as good as it was, was not the sole force at play. Regardless of some of the more unsavoury nuances of how we’ve built the potluck into our food culture, the sense of place created by good food and kind com-pany is something which we do not see often enough. On this note, I thought I’d provide a couple words of encouragement to the would-be host. At the very least, we could use a few excuses to get together more often over food.
First of all, the challenge of our hosting potlucks, as time-pressed students, is one of scheduling. Come Friday night there is inevitably Something Else going on, or your studies call. As a consequence, it becomes all the more important to reappropriate the weeknight from the cold grip of the library. There is no need to overcomplicate or over-plan the meeting of a few friends, a tub of hummus, and some bruschetta. I’ve also heard that the best essays are typed with one hand, while the other grabs forkfuls of a shared, discounted President’s Choice pound cake.
Of course, the nice thing about potlucks is that they can be special. Though I can speak only for myself, the act of breaking into a fine tourtière – whose crust you spent no less than seven minutes crimping – with friends can be highly cathartic. All you need to do is fabricate a special occasion. Maximize attendance by telling your cooking-inept friends that the line between a comically large bottle of wine and “real food” deserves to be blurred anyway.
If you’ve gotten this far through my column, then I certainly think it would be worth making an expedition through The New York Times’s food page, through food52.com, or through Pinterest in search of the perfect dish to bring to a friend’s. Cooking for others is not only a skill complementary to cooking for yourself, but something to be cherished and charted as an art.

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