Friday, April 15, 2011

Potlucks: The Original Food Rave

Today someone sent me a link to a story in the New York Times describing the phenomenon of "food raves" -- ephemerous underground restaurants, patronized via word-of-mouth, that give up-and-coming young chefs a chance to build a customer base without having to deal with the sometimes considerable licensing fees and bureaucratic hassles involved in the currently trendy pursuit of running a food cart.

My first thought, upon reading the article, was, " Good for them." My second was, "I wish we had food raves in our area." And then it occurred to me: What's another example of cooks showing off their signature dishes to a large crowd in a semi-spontaneous way?

Church potlucks.

Whoddathunk we were on the cutting edge of foodie culture?

Potlucks, at least in my state, have had to go increasingly underground because of onerous health department rules regarding advertising meals to the public; basically, if the food isn't made on premises according to state regulations, by people certified to handle food for public consumption, you can't advertise the meal outside your organization. Bulletin or newsletter blurbs are okay, for now; but mention a potluck on your church signboard or newspaper blurb and you're likely to get a frowny-faced visit from a local health department inspector. A couple of years ago our church ran press releases about our midweek Lenten worship that happened to mention a pre-service potluck, and we were promptly spanked by the Powers That Be. You can bet that schooled us.

People who know me are well aware of my liberal credentials. But these are cases where I feel real sympathy with my conservative neighbors who deeply resent this kind of nanny-ish state intrusion into what is simply a group of friends and neighbors coming together for a meal.  Especially when we all know supermarkets with perpetually sepulchral-smelling meat counters filled with irridescent steaks and gray chicken, or restaurants where we would no more order the egg salad sandwich than directly inject the salmonella into our veins, it seems inefficient, as well as petty, for local bureaucrats to make church kitchens -- at least in my lifetime experience a bastion of proud, obsessively hygienic church ladies who've never seen a church surface they didn't want to scrub with Comet, Pine-Sol or Murphy's Oil Soap, who'd likely commit hara-kiri with the ubiquitous church-kitchen electric knife if they ever inadvertently gave someone food poisoning  -- a front line of their war against food contamination.

I've worked in the public sector, engaging in what we believed was improving quality of life for citizens, catching that crusading spirit, and I truly understand how easy it is for health inspectors to see the world as one big, roiling cauldron of pathogens that they have been tasked with controlling at all costs. But -- I mean -- come on. For some reason I trust that Mrs. Tannenbaum's locally famous bratwurst potato salad isn't going to kill me. Not that I know a Mrs. Tannenbaum who makes bratwurst potato salad. Or that, if there were a Mrs. Tannenbaum, she would bring bratwurst potato salad to a potluck. Or that I know of any potlucks, anywhere, held by anyone. I'm just saying.

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