A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "potluck"?

February 17, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

Every so often somebody invites me to a potluck, especially during the holiday season. Thinking on it I decided that no one would call themselves lucky after tasting what I brought in my pot. Where does this term come from? After talking to some friends we concluded, without any true research, that it is derived from the potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest Indians. I'm not quite satisfied with this. Can you help me?

The current usage would lead one to associate it with the potlatch of Native Americans of the northwest, but the true origin is in the Middle Ages, in Europe.

The potlatch was a big celebration--often the host would give all his possessions away. The modern notion of bringing dishes to share (in essence, giving away what you have) seems like a natural extension of this idea.

It may be natural, but it's wrong. The term potluck comes from the traditional practice (not that it's entirely unknown among us moderns) of never throwing anything away. Meal leftovers would be put into a pot and kept warm, and could be used to feed people on short notice. This practice was especially prevalent in taverns and inns in medieval times, so that when you showed up for a meal, you took the "luck of the pot." A related term found its way into French usage, as an impromptu meal at home is often referred to as pot au feu, literally "pot on the fire."

Another related term, in a way, is "potboiler." A potboiler is a specimen of hack literature, generally produced quickly using recycled situations and characters to bring in some cash and keep the author's pot boiling. Like the potluck, a potboiler is a bit of a mishmash, not without its tasty aspects, but hardly something you'd mistake for gourmet.

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