September 1, 2023

What follows is a collection of stories submitted by readers in response to the theme of “potluck.”

The concept of “potluck” has taken on a new appreciation in our house since the onset of pandemic life. We came together with people not face to face but heart to heart through offers of roadside generosity. Some were chance encounters not likely repeated; others repeat themselves season after season.

In the earliest days of lockdown on a trek to the feed store, I found a chicken whirligig twirling in the wind over a cooler at the end of a driveway. “FREE EGGS,” read the sweet sign. I took a box with a dozen blue, brown and white treasures as our hens were not yet laying; and once they were, we gave away eggs, too.

A soap maker, with no fairs to sell at nor shops open for wholesale orders, gave away bars of her soap made with home-grown botanicals as the supermarket shelves emptied of anything that cleaned your body. I took two bars for an elderly friend I knew would love that they were handmade like she used to make.

A year into the pandemic, driving back roads to Goranson Farm after burying my mother at the Veteran’s cemetery in Augusta, we came across a box of surplus seedlings on the shoulder in front of a home garden. Three brassicas that turned out to be Brussels sprouts, three peppers that turned out to be jalapenos and a handful of onion starts. They were small, sturdy and thirsty. We brought them all with us. It felt like a sudden gift from Mom, who had been a dedicated gardener all her life.

On Election Day last year, Hope Hall at Sunflower Farm Creamery gave away squares of her precious goat milk fudge in honor of her dad, who has never missed an Election Day since he was old enough to vote. She invited folks to stop by before or after they voted. I spent a happy, hoppy hour visiting the goats before taking the fudge home to a poorly husband who felt much better after the first bite.

And so, it continues today. Under the mailbox at our neighbors’ old farm, we found a pile of red rhubarb so fresh that the leaves were still crinkly and the stalks thick and solid, with a tiny sign in perfect penmanship that says, “F R E E.” Maryanne shouted down the driveway, “Hodge is putting in a ramp to the porch and the rhubarb keeps getting in his way. Take as much as you want and if you need more you know where to find it!” We grabbed a handful, and I made a strawberry rhubarb crisp in celebration of our good fortune in produce and neighbors.

It’s potluck who enters your life; you never know who you’re going to get. But isn’t it reassuring to know that sometimes they anticipate your arrival in theirs by putting something out into the universe. Whether you open your front door or your car door, the rest is up to you.

– Wren Pearson, Pownal, Maine

Because most people love a good snack food, I almost always bring freshly popped corn to potluck gatherings. You might be thinking, popcorn? Really? I’ll try to make the case. Popcorn has become soul food for me. I was introduced to this highly satiating snack by a dear friend, Cary, who taught me the basics: the importance of pot surface area to kernel ratio, appropriate high-heat cooking oils and healthy flavoring options.

Historians believe that popcorn originated in the region we know today as Mexico. It had many uses beyond just a food source, including as a medium for various forms of art and jewelry-making, and as spiritual offerings. While the most common variety of popcorn eaten today is yellow, popcorn is endless in variety, both kernel and flavorings. I like to use white popcorn, which can have red, blue or pale yellow kernels. I prefer the typically smaller and crunchier white popcorn to traditional larger, softer yellow popcorn. If you’ve never tried white popcorn, give it a chance, you may be pleasantly surprised.

For a large batch (a potluck-worthy amount), use a thick, deep and wide pot and tight-fitting lid. The key to ensuring maximum poppage is matching the kernel quantity to the size of the pot — ideally each kernel has its own space touching the pot bottom.

Heat 2 tablespoons of high-heat oil (usually vegetable) over medium-high heat, add several white popcorn kernels (five to eight) and cover with the lid. After they have popped, add ½ cup of kernels (decrease the amount if using larger yellow kernels). With the lid on, gently slide the pot back and forth over the heat to ensure the kernels evenly coat with oil, then stand by and listen for the oh-so-satisfying popping sounds, which will follow a bell curve — slow to start, gaining speed, then slowing down again. When the popping has slowed to one or two pops per second, get ready to turn off the heat and transfer the popcorn into a large mixing bowl.

Melt two tablespoons of clarified butter in the still warm pot and pour over the popcorn, mixing as you pour. Next, sprinkle on one tablespoon of nutritional yeast, which has a mild, nutty flavor and is known to be an excellent source of niacin, folic acid, zinc, thiamine and selenium. Lastly, sprinkle on salt to taste.

I like to bring a large spoon and paper cups alongside the bowl for people to scoop out and enjoy their serving. Go ahead. Be that person who brings popcorn to the next potluck!   

– Jennifer Wilhelm, Madbury, New Hampshire

I haven’t attended very many potluck meals in my 33 years. The one potluck I did attend, which I’ll always remember, was when I was 11 years old. My siblings and I attended a very large homeschool group. That fall semester the faculty decided on a potluck dinner as a fundraiser. I was so excited: my first potluck dinner! I had read about potlucks and how they were a buffet of different food choices. I couldn’t wait to see what new and exciting dishes would be waiting to surprise me. My mother had decided to make her family-approved, and greatly loved, barbecue Italian herb chicken. That chicken was better than anything you could get at a restaurant. As much as we all loved it, my siblings and I were determined to try the many new dishes waiting for us at the potluck.

Finally, the evening arrived. My father made sure that the chicken was packed up tight and placed in a sturdy box for transportation. My family and I then piled into our van, with my brother sitting in the backseat holding the goods, and off we went!

Long tables — filled with platter after platter, crockpot after crockpot — lined the area near the school’s open kitchen. Trying to ignore where my mother placed her platter of goodness, my siblings and I greeted our friends then hastened to fill our plates. A little of this, a little of that. I sat down at my family‘s table and took a forkful of my first choice. Hmm, not as amazing as what I had expected. But, I thought, let’s try another dish! Hmm, still not as amazing as I had hoped. After trying everything on my plate, I was happy with some and far from satisfied with others. My siblings all agreed.

Still hungry, we went back to peruse the other choices. Finally, we all decided on the one dish we just knew would make our taste buds zing and our tummies happy. When we sat back down at the table, our father smiled in approval, for he had selected this as his first and pretty much only choice. I bit into my mother’s dish, my mouth bursting with the sweet tangy flavor. Mmm! Nodding and smiling at my siblings as they nodded and smiled back, I knew we had found the best dish at the potluck. “Mom can you make this for dinner again tomorrow night?” I asked hopefully. I guess nothing can compare to your mother’s cooking and that special flavor only a mother can add to any dish.

– Stephanie Michaels, Strong, Maine          

Recipes for a Happy Heart

Combine in a skillet two

complementary ingredients.

Bring up to heat, then

sprinkle with warm spice;

omit bitter herbs, sour grapes.

Cook together, stirring faithfully,

until tender, then simmer

gently as the flavors marry.

Of nature’s bounty

Pick when the time is ripe,

then trim, peel, and soak

in beautiful water

till light and translucent.

Drain on a warm towel

and bake until golden.

Savor al fresco.

Gather your garden plenty

Wash and dice, then place

in a lucky pot

with broth and healing herbs.

Cook over a spirit flame

till softened into a comforting stew.

Invite friends, family, neighbors

and share with a glad heart.

– Jane Crosen Washburn, Penobscot, Maine

These stories were originally published in the fall 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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