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Pot luck

One of my students was puzzled today by a reference in an article to fundraising by “box suppers.” I explained that it was my understanding that it is a method, popular in the Midwest, by which people donate packaged meals to a church or civic event and then buy them. It’s like the rummage sale in which you contribute crappy items for which you have no further use and then attend to buy other people’s crappy discards.

My wife’s parish in Columbus, Ohio, featured pie sales. Members would make pies, donate them, then buy them back.

The box supper is one form of the communal pot-luck meal, and it occurs to me that there must be a number of regional variants. Some places call them covered-dish suppers. And I believe I’ve heard Garrison Keillor refer to hotdish events among Minnesotans. I’d be interested in hearing from readers of this blog what variations they are aware of, and what regions those variations are associated with.

And I’m sure that there are also significant regional menu variations. The church potlucks in the little Presbyterian congregation I attended in my youth in Kentucky often featured, as a height of sophistication, the cheese ring, a kind of cheese loaf with a heap of peas in the center. Fortunately, there was always proper fried chicken, along with a selection of illustrious pies. (It was, however, necessary for my mother to take note of who contributed what and advise my sister and me, the level of hygienic preparation not being uniform across the table.)

I might add, in some exasperation, that people cooked those foods for the church dinners. It would not have occurred to them to go to a supermarket and buy some prefabricated dish to contribute. That people today do so without a thought and without a loss of caste in the community merely speaks to the degeneracy of our times.

Anyhow, what did you eat, and where did you eat it, and what was the meal called?



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:55 PM | | Comments (12)


In Minnesota it's definitely hotdish. The food of my people. Tater tot hotdish or tuna noodle bake are among the staples. But it's not hotdish if it doesn't have cream of mushroom soup in it. There also must be crumbled potato chips on the top.

In upstate New York almost all groups held covered-dish suppers. Our church congregation, being Lutheran, could count on several Jello-mold salads (usually orange or lime) complete with mini-marshmallows. Three-bean salads were popular. I preferred swedish meatballs.

Other fundraising meals: Friday fish fries; bake sales, including at schools when they served as polling places.

And, yes, everything was made at home, from scratch (Jello being a staple).

I've gone to "casserole suppers" at my grandmother's Baptist church in Mississippi, and "covered-dish luncheons" at our Methodist church in Georgia. Sometimes they're called "church family suppers." Both of them, in addition to the obligatory casseroles and fried chicken, invariably feature fruit salads made with whipped cream and/or pudding mixes, and also plenty of Jello molds. If you're lucky, someone will bring pigs-in-a-blanket or meatballs.

I've recalled since posting that my wife once encountered a distinctive dish on a trip to Iowa: Jell-O with cream cheese, strawberries and -- wait for it --- pretzels.

Hotdish is indeed the foundation of the Minnesota Scandinavian Lutheran potluck (though we always called it a potluck rather than a hotdish supper), and I agree with Leeann that it usually involves cream of mushroom soup and that tuna is a popular choice of meat (though ground beef may be the most common). Other than that, if it comes in a can or is found in the freezer aisle, it can be made into a hotdish ingredient. The creative possibilities are frighteningly endless.

However, one cannot speak of Minnesota Scandinavian Lutheran potlucks and fail to mention Jell-O. Jell-O is an absolute must at such gatherings (perhaps in homage to our most famous culinary treat, the gelatinous cod dish known as lutefisk). There are, of course, the usual Jell-O with fruit cocktail and marshmallow mixes, but just as anything is game for hotdishes, anything is game for Jell-O concoctions. My grandmother’s favorite Jell-O-based recipe contains carrots and mayonnaise. Miracle Whip also finds its way into these monstrosities surprisingly often. And you thought pretzels were bad.

How do we manage to redeem our culinary tastes, you ask? The answer: Christmas. Lutefisk aside, no one does Christmas quite like the Scandinavian Lutherans. The bake sales are not for pies, but for Scandinavian rosettes, ginger cookies, julekake, krumkake and lefse, this last being a very thin, moist potato-based tortilla (for lack of a better descriptor) that is garnished with butter and brown sugar, rolled up and eaten. If you celebrate St. Lucia Day, you also get to eat the saffron and current buns known as lussekatter.

And that’s the church cuisine of my childhood. Now that you’ve gotten me thinking, perhaps I’ll bring a hotdish to my next church potluck. I’d bring my grandma’s Jell-O, but I don’t know that the Episcopalians are ready for that level of cross-denominational exchange. We’re still working on the whole apostolic succession issue after all - no need to further complicate matters just yet.

Vegetables do not belong in Jell-O. Ever. Period. That being said, we called 'em potlucks in Illinois, and none was complete without a potato dish (or five), and plenty of others containing one or all of the following: Miracle Whip, Velveeta, Cream of Mushroom soup, elbow macaroni and bacon bits. And yes, a Jell-O mold or seven.

Celery is wonderful in Jell-O, and there's a famous Lemon Jell-O, pineapple, Miracle Whip, Cool Whip, grated Velveeta, walnut salad that's TDF! Olives should stay out of Jell-O. As a Swedish Lutheran, I feel quite qualified on Jell-O and Potluck Dinners, also Salad Luncheons.

In Nebraska, it's Potlucks and we don't bring hotdishes, we bring casseroles.

I think of box dinners as belonging to an earlier era. They're fully explained and shown in "Oklahoma!".

My church had covered-dish suppers when I was growing up in upstate New York, but it seems to me that when I was in Ithaca, such meals were often called dish-to-pass dinners. I have also heard "dish-to-share."

I am still fond of a Jell-O dish called Sunshine Salad, which has grated carrots and pineapple in lemon gelatin. My family doesn't share this fondness.

When we lived in Maysville, Ky., the churches had potluck meals. My minister's wife, who was a terrific person but uninterested in spending time in the kitchen (in part because she had a demanding job of her own), always made the same thing -- scalloped pineapple.

Often the Maysville potlucks had sliced ham, several different versions of scalloped potatoes, at least two pans of scalloped corn, and several pots of green beans that had been simmered with bacon. Cornbread was also common.

Now I live near Harrisburg. "Covered dish" seems to be the preferred term. A lot of church suppers around here serve beef or chicken pot pie, which is not a baked pie with a crust, but a thick Pennsylvania Dutch soup with wide noodles. Two other staples at the food stands at football games and band competitions are ham and bean soup and the ever-popular chicken-corn soup.

In western Canada, there used to be events called "box socials" that served as mixers for the local young people. Each young lady would prepare a boxed lunch, and the young men would bid for the one they found most attractive (the lunch, that is). The successful bidder would then sit and share lunch with the young lady who prepared it.

The maker was supposed to be anonymous to the bidders, but I am sure that these things were often rigged.

According to NPR, Jell-O is all the rage among the chic New Yorkers, including the strawberry pretzel 'salad', which they bring to potlucks.

We had potluck dinners in my midwestern church (and now here in NYC). But they are NOT fund raisers, at least, not in the churches I have attended. They are fellowship opportunities.

I live in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country, so our potlucks are always amazing. Things are often labeled with their "country of origin."

I always make a point of bringing MY ethnic food--hamburger green-bean casserole, or baking powder biscuits, or fried chicken. And I label them suchly: "Country of origin: Iowa."

A box supper is a "bid on the box w/ the homemade supper" fund raiser. Sometimes it's a mixer, w/ romance in the air, and sometimes it's simply a meal.

"Box Socials" is the name of a novel, from 1991, I think, by WP Kinsella. The book is set in western Canada and looks at the playing of baseball in a rural area. As one of your other readers notes, young women would make box lunches and young men would bid on these lunches and get to meet the makers of the lunches. NPR did a good interview with Kinsella back when the book came, an interview I will never forget. Indeed, Googling for it got me to your page, here.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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