International Potluck Party

Aman with dreadlocks dangling down his back sips a New Zealand-inspired kiwifruit cocktail.

He’s deep in conversation with a companion clothed in a gabbi (a traditional Ethopian tunic) who is sampling spicy peanut soup from Sierra Leone.

The table before them is laid with Polish cabbage rolls, Indian samosas, and Russian beet salad.

Lunch at the United Nations cafeteria? A walk down Vancouver’s Commercial Drive?

No, all this happens in Whitehorse in a house that looks ordinary from the outside. Yet step inside on a particular night of the month and you will find cuisine, music and costumes from all corners of the globe.

It is called the International Potluck. The idea stems from a love of food and family and the sheer necessity of creating entertainment and warmth during the Yukon’s frigid, dark winters.

I am new to the territory, but I arrived attached to a sprawling, gregarious family that knows how to have a good time, even – or especially – when it’s minus 30 and the idea of a night on the town pales in comparison to staying close to the kitchen stove with your favourite folks and something deliciously spicy.

“We’re famous for our potlucks,” one family member told me. “People are always asking to join.”

No wonder. The Smiths (their real last name) are a posse of cooks and entertainers. Some dabble in acting, others perform musically. Some roast coffee, others bake.

You won’t find watery macaroni salad, syrupy coolers or muddled casseroles at their parties. Rather, plump, spiced dumplings brought by the Afghanistan delegate are perfectly toothsome and prettily presented.

The evening begins with steaming bowls of congee (a traditional Chinese savoury porridge) served piping hot with a garnish of crisp shredded chicken and a bright dash of green onion.

The potluck has been around for centuries; texts from the 16th century tell us the culinary gathering gained its title from the chances of happening upon a palatable meal when arriving at someone’s dinner table unannounced.

“May the luck of the pot be with me,” one might hope when knocking on a neighbour’s door precisely at supper time.

But the potluck has evolved. It is now usually a coordinated event where guests are invited and sometimes designated to bring particular kinds of dishes.

Most of us have attended potlucks. I can attest that it’s a popular form of dinner party among the university crowd, being both more casual and much cheaper than springing for the groceries it takes to feed a dozen or so of your closest friends.

In fact, if you’re a university student it’s a smart idea to have a couple of potluck stunners up your sleeve if you aim to impress (chocolate-espresso cake enveloped in ganache was one of my go-to standards) or a dish that can be whipped out of thin air at the last moment (fried dates stuffed with parmagiano and wrapped in bacon, or on that note, anything wrapped in bacon and fried).

What the Smiths have done is to take it one step further. Add costumes, a globe, some sitar music, and suddenly you’ve got more than just dinner, you’ve got an event.

Here’s how it works: the would-be potluckers gather around a globe and take turns spinning. Wherever your finger lands is the country you represent in the next International Potluck Party. You have two weeks to research, choose your recipe and gather your ingredients.

“You can find most of what you need in the local grocery stores,” says the congee maker, but he also recommends choosing a recipe that doesn’t ask for, say, fresh turmeric root or pickled eel.

On the eve of the big event, some party-goers don costumes (the waist-length dreads, for example, were sewn into a Rastafarian tam), others bring music from the country they are representing.

Everyone brings a dish traditional to their country. Some are more liberal than others, as in the case of the Japanese delegate who brought grasshopper pie, assuring us that Japan does indeed have grasshoppers. The kiwi margaritas from New Zealand were also a bit of a stretch.

But the point is not to impress. The point, really, is to remember that when it’s freezing cold and black as ink outside, the tradition of conviviality, of enjoying good food with friends and family, is all you need.

In 1874 the New York Times published an article detailing a group of friends who had begun meeting regularly for potlucks.

“Eating and drinking, laughter and gayety held their sway for a couple of hours,” it read.

“[O]n the proposition of Mrs. Croly, the great success of the Pot-Luck Picnic having been firmly established, the lady insisted that such talent ought not to be forever lost, but that a club should be formed, when similar dinners should be given,” (New York Times, March 26, 1879.)

Who knows? Maybe those guys had their own crazy theme to help bolster them through the blustery New York winters.

As the matriarch of the Smith family advised me when I first arrived in the Yukon, “There are days when you are ready to curl up with a blanket by four o’clock, but you have to resist the urge.”

You have to be creative: when you can’t muster up the gumption to go out into the world, invite the world into your kitchen.

And may the luck of the pot be with you.

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