A stroke of potluck

By the time I get home from work, my family is already eating. Cauliflower and cheese soup, hot bread, salad. It looks inviting, but I can’t take a bite. I’m just too full after the holiday buffet at work.

Thai meat balls, chicken fajitas, slips of endive with egg salad topped with shrimp. Champagne with fresh strawberries. Dish after dish, all spread out on desks in the sales department. Paté and cheddar cheese balls, green bean casserole. Five kinds of dessert, some eggnog and two cases of Labatt.

When my wife asks why I’m not slurping up my soup, I grab my belly and utter one of my favorite words: potluck.

“Don’t you mean potlatch?” challenges my daughter, Tess. She’s been studying the Indians of the Pacific Northwest at school. “When a chief would die and a new chief was selected, all the Indians from different tribes would come for a ceremony,” she explains. “The new chief would give out presents, and the people would all bring food for a big feast.”

“A potluck is kind of the same thing,” I say, “except the chief didn’t hand out any presents this year. Budget tightening.”

Later on I look up the words. All my dictionaries pretty much agree on the definition of potluck, varying depending on the dictionary’s age. My favorite comes from a 1923 Webster’s: “Whatever may chance to be in the pot.”

Potlatch, on the other hand, has a richer history. At its most literal, this Chinook word means “a gift.”

But Tess was right; it’s more than that.

“A ceremonial distribution by a man of gifts to his own and neighboring tribesmen, often to his own impoverishment.”

My newer Webster’s takes away the poetry: A winter festival involving the distribution or exchange of gifts, “often squandering the host’s belongings.”

And suddenly I am depressed. That one word, squandering, gets me to thinking about the crass commercialism that’s become the focal point of the holiday season.

It’s late now, but this is no mood to take to bed. So I force a happy thought, and think about the fine, fine meal I had earlier with lots of good people, each going out of his or her way to bring something special for all to share.

Sometime later comes this dream: We’re at breakfast, oatmeal with raisins and chunks of golden apple. I’m talking about the dictionary differences between potlatch and potluck, and how the whole Indian thing sounds way more interesting, when my son cracks, “Yeah, but where are you going to find someone crazy enough to give away everything they own?”

My daughter sits quietly, pondering the question. Then her face ignites into a delighted smile. “I know someone who does that,” she offers.

“Who?” challenges my son.

“Santa,” she says, absolutely certain. “He gives away almost everything he has every year.”

I wake up unscrooged. Outside, the cold white snowy desolation throws light against a cloud-covered sky. I get out of bed and go to the kitchen to boil water for oatmeal, with raisins and chunks of golden apple.


Ring in the New Year with Spencer Barefield and friends at the Harlequin Café, 8047 Agnes in Detroit. Tasty food, great music — just call 313-891-2514 for reservations — the Dec. 31 bash starts at 9:30 p.m. and includes music, buffet and champagne. … Know a kid aged 9-13? Do they cook? They can enter the recipe they like best to prepare (with some restrictions) in Michigan’s first Kroger/Pillsbury Kids’ Bake-Off. Grand prize is a trip to Florida this summer. Contest rules and entry forms are available at Kroger stores or from www.wnic.com. Deadline is Dec. 31.

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