I have a riddle for you:
What do you call a potluck in the UK?
Actually, the proper answer is more like ‘odd’ or ‘different’ or even to the culturally astute, ‘very American.’
In the US a potluck is something that happens quite a lot in different social gatherings where the budget is low but the desire to get together and have food is high. Everyone who attends a get together where there will be food agrees in advance to a type of dish they will bring, perhaps a meat dish, a dip, a casserole, a salad, or a dessert. Store-bought is fine, if they aren’t able/willing to cook.They usually put their name on a strip of tape underneath the serving dish so it can be retrieved more easily after the party.
Growing up in the States I attended many potlucks. Family reunions, my dad’s departmental get-togethers, my mom’s work do’s, and even at university when we had a fancy party (i.e. something involving more than cheap beer) everyone brought some food to contribute.
When I turned 40 in the UK I wanted to have a get together at home where the atmosphere would be more relaxed, where people could linger and talk and know they wouldn’t have to leave by a certain time. But I didn’t want to cook and I couldn’t afford catering. I decided we could have a potluck and the theme would be curry. Everyone could bring a curry dish and I would provide the naan bread and pilau rice.
When I outlined my plans to my husband he looked at me as if I had just belched in front of his mother, embarrassed that I would even think of doing such a thing. And he’s not a closed-minded guy.
‘You’re asking people to bring food?’
‘Well, yes.’ The emphasis in his question made me immediately aware of a possible cultural faux pas. It is true that in all my 20+ years in the UK I had never heard the term ‘potluck’ when referred to food and gatherings, but surely they just called it something else, ‘bring-a-dish’ perhaps?
‘But…’ He couldn’t even voice his dismay.
Indignation rose in me.
‘It’s my birthday! I don’t want to cook and it’ll be nicer relaxing at home than at a restaurant!’
‘I know but… should I just cook?’
‘What? Why? What’s so weird about bringing food to a party?’
‘Well…’ He couldn’t find the words. We were both struggling with our notions and how to express them. It had been a while since I had run into such a cultural bump and I wasn’t sure how to respond so I flounced a bit and decided I would press forward with this idea.
I used the I’m-foreign-so-you-expect-me-to-be different card. I began ringing people and asking them that instead of a present or flowers or wine, please bring a curry as that would be the best fun for me on my birthday. Everyone accepted the idea, although one or two needed more clarification (or reassurance) and promised me they were looking forward to the party. The date arrived and the guests and curries arrived, we all looked at each other’s curries, a buffet table of different people’s favourites and the guests all declared this to be an excellent, if surprising idea.
And so, several years later I began organising a surprise party for my husband’s 50th. Several of the invited friends couldn’t get babysitters so we decided it would be a family get together with all the kids, which meant it needed to be earlier in the evening. I explained to my friends via email that I could manage to hide enough alcohol for a party but I couldn’t hide enough food for everyone and should we just have nibbles. A British person in the group suggested (boldly) that everyone bring a dish. A ripple of uncertainty went through the group emails but then very quickly people jumped in with ideas of what they’d like to bring.
And on the night when everyone arrived an hour ahead of my husband, they all proudly carried in their dishes and set them out on the tables. By bringing their contribution to the party people seemed to feel a greater investment in making the evening a good one. The atmosphere was immediately more relaxed and excited and happy than I have felt at a party for a long time. I loved it. And the food was a great mix of very tasty flavours.
But I had several comments. One guest told me his mother-in-law was astounded and asked him, ‘you’re bringing food to a party?’ even though, he assured me, he had explained to her the reason why. Another guest asked me if what she brought was appropriate and I replied it was perfect and she said, ‘because I wasn’t sure and A (her husband) was really confused about why we’d bring food and so I had to explain but he was still not clear about why we’d bring it.’ Well, to eat, I wanted to say, but you know. It takes some people longer to assimilate ideas so I just laughed lightly like you learn to do as an expat (option #14 on how to respond to people thinking you’re weird).
Seriously, readers. Is it really that weird? Or odd?
We all had so much fun that I think I’ll have more potlucks from now on.
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.
Read more of Michelle's Expat Focus articles here.