Origin of the word POTLUCK

We were first exposed to the concept of “Potluck” in the late 90’s when we lived in the US for a few years. It was common practise for Indian’s in US to get together over the weekend at one persons house. Cooking load was shared and everyone brought a dish. So we had variety and vanity, pride and competitiveness ensured good quality food. It’s a simple concept that works well.

A few days back as we headed out for a Potluck lunch at a friends place I started wondering how the concept originated and a little bit of research got me started on this Blog.

Did you know that the first reference to the term ” potluck” was during Shakespeare’s time. In the year 1592 Thomas Nashe included this term in his stage drama “Summer’s Last Will and Testament“. According to Robert Palmatier in “Food: A Dictionary of Literal and Nonliteral Terms.” The original text in which the word is used states, “Because you are my countrymen and so forth; and a good fellow, is a good fellow, though he have never a penny in his purse. We had but even pot-luck, a little to moisten our lips, and no more.”

The definition of potluck implies accepting an unplanned offering. For example, the original meaning of potluck was a  a meal with no planned menu. It was a meal that had food available that was the “luck of the draw.” In a sentence, an unexpected guest might have to accept potluck instead of a planned meal that was cooked with the idea of feeding him.


A second version considers the origin of potluck 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.”

Some attribute the origin of Potluck to  potlatch – A gift-giving feast practiced by the indigenous people of Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada & US. A potlatch was held on the occasion of births, deaths, adoptions, weddings, and other major events.Only rich people could host a potlatch. Tribal slaves were not allowed to attend a potlatch as a host or a guest. In some instances, it was possible to have multiple hosts at one potlatch ceremony.

In modern usage a potluck supper is typically referred to as a food gathering where everyone brings a random dish.There are a few basic guidelines regarding the potluck, whether you love them or hate them. Cook a meal – don’t try to save time by buying food en-route to the potluck party. It spoils the fun – and if everyone did that one might as well have ordered food. If you hate to cook get a bottle of wine or some nice dessert.

Closely associated with this is another word  “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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