The covered dish

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Andy Williams assures us that it is. For pilots, it can be. Predicable winter fronts can be followed by a day of wind, then a day or two of CAVU.

It ain’t happening this year. Right now in north Georgia there has been rain and fog for days. In the mid-South, it’s been worse: Ice and power outages are plaguing folks. In the west, brutal cold prevails, while in the northeast, snow stops are reported at major airports. So tell me, what’s so wonderful about that?

Changing the weather is out of our hands. The Front Porch Gang huddles around the heater on the worst days and catches a flight on the better days, but, rain or shine, we enjoy our annual holiday Bring-A-Dish Dinner. Last year, the weather was magnificent. This year, it’s not looking so hot. Literally. Nevertheless, we will eat. It’s what pilots do well.

While very popular in our country, the roots of the covered dish or pot luck dinner/supper are found abroad, and it’s easy to recognize that the Irish may have first coined the phrase “the luck of the pot” when referring to eating what’s available. Americans have taken this unstructured meal and turned it into an art form.

Wikipedia states, “In the United States, potlucks are associated with crockpot dishes, casseroles, dessert bars and jello salads.” While based on truth, I find this statement somewhat stereotypical, kind of patronizing, and frankly ignorant. I have never made a jello salad in my life. I do, however, own crockpots — six of them, in fact, if you count my new bank of three that is so handy during the holidays for keeping dishes warm.

Admittedly, casseroles at these events are often in abundance and many require sacrificing several cans of some flavor of Campbell’s creamed soup, but not everyone is a gourmet cook. Happily, our spread at JZP is as varied and appealing as the folks who prepare it.

Our gang hails from all over, so does our food. Red was born and raised in South Dakota. He brings his speciality, Buffalo Chili. Bob’s wife, Kelly, works on a local organic produce farm. She brings great broccoli slaw. Steve from Maryland makes yummy mac and cheese (which is considered a vegetable by southerners). Carolyn from Ohio is bringing stuffing, which is somewhat different from the southern version of dressing and is guaranteed to be as tasty.

Marion HarrisMarion Harris, our airport manager, is a gourmet cook. He fries only the freshest turkeys. Our friend Walt is a Front Porch Gang expat who now resides near the coast of Georgia. It is his hope that the weather cooperates so that he and a friend can deliver several pounds of fresh Georgia shrimp via Cessna 172. We hope so, too.

I like to bring something fresh from the garden if it is still producing. This year, it is. I have kale, collards and turnip greens. If I find enough turnip roots, I plan to make a turnip gratin with my own thyme and garlic, along with some freshly grated parmesan cheese, butter and cream. Surely Wikipedia does not classify my gratin as a casserole. If it does, it will not stop me from eating it.

I also plan to bring fried chicken livers, a southern delicacy requested by several of the guys. I rinse them well, and then soak them in buttermilk, chopped garlic and black pepper for several hours. Drain, roll them in flour and fry in a deep pot in canola oil until golden brown. Do not overcook, as livers are dry as rocks if overdone. Drain well and cool completely before packing for transit. This keeps them crisp.

I’ve used the terms bring-a-dish, covered dish and potluck interchangeably, but here in the South, bring-a-dish or covered dish is preferred. If the term dinner is used after these expressions, then the meal will be eaten around noon. The use of dinner elevates plain ole lunch to a special occasion (which usually happens on Sunday). Supper is the meal eaten at night. Thus, the Front Porch Gang is eating our Bring-A-Dish Dinner at 12:30 p.m.

There seems to be a slight variation in the execution of the bring-a-dish/covered dish version and the potluck. I noticed this after several years of loosely organizing our event. I basically send an announcement out to my email list stating, “Bring your favorite dish.” This unrestricted freedom confuses some cooks. What do we need, they ask. Food, I say.

In my world, bring-a-dish/covered dish/potluck events abound: Church, community and the airport. Those who cook have a dish that is generally liked, that travels well and, in some cases, has been passed down for generations. Folks know what you bring. My research suggests that the potluck version is a little more planned. Someone brings a protein. Another brings the salad. Others bring dessert.

The southern version is a little less rigid — bring it and they will eat. Either way, it’s all good.

Jon M. Richardson in his blog, The Ultimate Word, explains it best: “Covered Dish Dinners aren’t about planning a meal; they’re about making space for grace. It doesn’t work out as neatly as if it had all been planned ahead of time, but works out all the same. It never really adds up. Everyone is asked to bring enough for themselves. Some people don’t bring anything. Everyone eats more than their share, and there are always leftovers. It just doesn’t add up. We can’t know how it works, but we know it works.”

I couldn’t have explained it better.

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