Potluck Culture - Midwest

Since moving to a new region of the country I have been very confused by potlucks.  I can't seem to bring the right item and I sense that in some unknown way I have offended the host/ess in what I have brought.  The potlucks here are different.  At church they have stuffed olives and fancy displays of unrecognizable finger foods.  At parties, everyone seems to bring wine or elegant desserts.

Today while doing research on cultural socio-economic class differences I came across a video clip of Dr. Ruby Payne telling about the time she took a casserole dish to a woman who was sick and inadvertently offended the woman.  I guess that the gift was offensive because for this woman and her social-class it wasn't so much about the food as it was about the display of the food, which included the serving dish.  I guess in this cultural setting the dish was also a part of the gift!

So, I decided to research the culture of potlucks and I came across this blog about potluck etiquette.  VERY different etiquette from the etiquette I learned in the Midwest.  Thus, I wrote the following response:

I'm glad I came across your blog.  I've lived on the east coast for three years and I've been completely confused by what is appropriate to bring to a potluck.  Potlucks here are not like potlucks in the Midwest.  
In the Midwest you bring your favorite family casserole, marshmallow salad, crock-pot dish, pie, or chips.  The point of a potluck is the relationships and the saved time that everyone gains by not having to cook the entire meal.  In the Midwest guests are not to out-do each other in the food that they prepare, unless it is a family recipe that your family has brought to potlucks for generations.  Simplicity is respected. Fatty foods are good.  Presentation does not matter.  It is an informal affair where guests are expected to take seconds and/or thirds.  And often single guests are excused from bringing a dish, although the single man will usually bring chips, purchased KFC chicken or a pizza and the single woman will bring a dessert. 
Each person labels his/her dish with the family name and takes the left-overs home once the event has passed. Sometimes one may offer to leave a few servings for the host (if it is a person/family, not a church/organization) and this is often left in a separate container so that the host is not obligated to clean and return the serving dish.  If it is left, as in the case of a wedding, funeral, or birthday, the cleaned dish is personally returned to the owner with a thank you note placed neatly inside. 
The challenging part of Midwest potlucks is the manner of complement. One must recognize that the person standing next to you in the buffet line may be the person who prepared the food that you are currently dishing on your plate.  It is about saying kind words about all of the food that has been prepared and raving about the one or two items of which you cannot get enough.  It is about the relationships.
Thank you for blogging about the etiquette of a potluck.  I would love to know what region of the country, what ethnic culture, and for what social class these rules apply, as I do not want to inadvertently offend anyone.  I now have a better idea of what to take to my next east coast potluck. Thank you.

So, what are the unwritten potluck rules in your part of the country?  I invite you to respond.


Katie Z. said…
I love this post!!! It makes me strain to remember potluck rules from Nashville... The "new south" region of our country. I think it was remarkably similar to our midwestern upbringing, so I didn't notice as many differences.

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