Wednesday, March 03, 2010

We're Not Gonna Take It (To The Potluck) Anymore

I usually knock myself out for potlucks.

Pies made from scratch 100% - not even so much as a pre-made crust. Crisp, cheesy Crock-Pot potato recipes that start the day before. Chicken fajita dip that requires warming and mixing just before you set it out so it will be at its yummiest. Cookies that take all day; layer cakes threatening to cover my car interior with homemade buttercream on the drive over; fruit crisps taken out milliseconds before departure so that they are served at a still-bubbling temperature. Complicated transport rigs involving cardboard boxes, silicone potholders, aluminum foil, kitchen towels, and bungee cords. Presentation in my best ceramic or glassware, with hand-lettered signs and decorative ribbon. Big chunks of the grocery budget taken up with quality butter, goat cheese, red wine, white chocolate, imported sugars, organic flour.

For a long time, I did it because I loved to cook, I loved to show off my kitchen skills, and I got satisfaction from knowing that I'd used top-quality ingredients and put my heart and soul into it.

But that was before.  Before this past holiday season wore me down.  It wasn't a horrible, stressful Halloween-to-New Year's run; no more than usual, anyway.  But somewhere in there was the straw that broke the camel's back.

This year was just one too many.  One too many times I'd stood by a long, extra-leaves-added table in someone's dining room, watching as people inhaled Minute Rice and Velveeta while giving my lovingly-made food a wide berth. Too many years of work potlucks where people passed up the pie I'd made from scratch in my tiny, hot-as-Hades kitchen while fighting over the last grocery-store doughnut. One too many times all those expensive, quality ingredients sat getting soggier and sadder in my fridge as I struggled to consume the leftovers I'd had to bring home.  Schelpping my beautiful glass bakeware in its own insulated carryalls home at the end of the night, their weight only marginally less than when I'd taken them out the door a few hours earlier - this had become my own personal walk of shame.

This year, it felt like I spent more time than usual working my ass off on food nobody wanted to eat.  Maybe, if I'm being honest, the seeds were planted last March, when I made, per a friend's request, a chocolate-bourbon-pecan pie (again, from scratch) for his birthday.  He forgot about our plans and failed to show up to eat it (my husband polished it off for him). We re-scheduled and I made my friend another pie...which he also didn't show up to eat (though this time at least it wasn't because he forgot). I made a third one - the third one of these in less than a week - and he finally showed up to eat it, but with just a brush off "Oh, thanks." Three rounds of pecans and bourbon and crust and toiling in a hot kitchen, all in less than a week, and all I get is "Oh, thanks"?

This same friend completely forgot about my birthday a few months later.  He (and his wife) didn't even give me an after-the-fact courtesy "happy birthday" when he asked about my new phone and I said "Oh, it was a present, for my birthday last week." Not a word. Disappointed didn't quite cover what I felt.

Fast-forward to this Thanksgiving, when I was visiting my parents' place and made seven pies in one day.  First there was some whining because I'd only made one pecan, and that was the only pie some of the non-family guests wanted to eat; then, two of my beautiful pies had to be thrown out after a couple of days because nobody thought to refrigerate them.  They were both untouched, the sweet potato's delicate asiago crust uncompromised and the pumpkin's smooth surface unbroken. 

As Christmas time rolled around, I got invited to a cookie exchange.  I figured I'd better bring my A-game, so I got my mom to give me the recipe for a family favorite, small butter thumbprint cookies with a creamcheese & candy-cane filling.  They were a real pain in the ass to make, but delicious.  I also made a pan full of these, a clone recipe for Starbucks White Chocolate Cranberry Bliss Bars. I figured if my fellow exchangers didn't like one, they'd like the other.

When I got to the cookie exchange, I discovered that not everyone thought a cookie-exchange party meant "bring something really cool." There were plywood-tasting slice n' bake cookies, break n' bakes that had been baked in their original squarish shapes, and at least 1/4 of the entries were plain old chocolate chip. One or two people brought bakery cookies, and at least 1/3 of the participants left without taking anything home. I pushed some of my peppermint & cream cheese drops on people as we were filling containers at the end of the night, because even though I knew I'd have no problem eating up the leftovers, I couldn't bear to take a box full of my own cookies home. I already had to take home the cranberry white chocolate bars, which had turned out too crumbly to dish up, not that it mattered because I and the hostess were the only ones who tried them anyway.

Dejected, I soldiered on, readying myself for a friend's Christmas-Eve potluck.  This would be our second year attending, and I think we were the only non-family people on the guest list both years.  I decided not to do anything too elaborate, but I knew that my friend adored both sweet potatoes and goat cheese, so Heidi Swanson's Sweet Potato Spoon Bread (from Super Natural Cooking, the book that changed my life in the kitchen life) seemed like a slam-dunk.  I also brought an apple crisp, for which it was no picnic finding decent out-of-season apples. Both items were made the day of the potluck, and transported fresh from the oven, so they would still be warm for serving.

Which would've been great, had anybody actually eaten them.

Since this crew is all family, everybody pretty much brings the same thing year after year, and I overheard a lot of "Oh, you brought your rice! I'm so glad" or "Did you bring that mac & cheese?  I was hoping you would!" I have no problem with this...but they don't even try anything else. As I filled my own Chinet plate with items I could easily feed to Piper, I watched as spoonful after spoonful of fluorescent yellow macaroni and cheese or greasy Lil Smokies disappeared, while the perfect golden-brown, cheese-flecked surface of my spoon bread remained untouched.  I eventually grabbed a spoonful for myself, since it is delicious, and my friend said later that she did try it and liked it. But we were the only ones who even gave it a second glance.

My apple crisp fared only slightly better. When I went in for a round of desserts, I at least found I wasn't the first person to broach its crispy surface with the spoon (although I'd wager I was the second, and only other person that night who did). At the end of the evening, as I packed up my dishes and my now-cranky child, I felt like crying. I had a moment of deja vu, and realized that this was the second year in a row I'd left feeling disappointed in this way.  The previous year, I had made an apple pie and, because I know there are people like my husband who don't like fruit pies, I had bought a frozen Oreo pie from the store.  All night I'd watched as the store-bought one disappeared, its peaks of chemically-solidified whipped cream being cut into again and again. Meanwhile, my hand-made love letter to Washington apples sat in its glass dish, with only one piece gone. I had apple pie for breakfast for the next week.

I decided right then and there that I wasn't going to do it anymore. No more pies for people who wouldn't eat them, no more food-from-scratch for work potlucks or places where it hadn't been appreciated.  From now on, I will bring plates and cups as my contribution.  I will bring drinks, or napkins, or help clean up afterward.  But I'm not going to break my back cooking for people who don't appreciate it anymore.  If they'd rather have Velveeta on Minute Rice...well, let them. I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore. 


Callipygian said...

How rude of the friend with the thrice-made birthday pie. He specifically requested it and you generously made it multiple times so he could enjoy it, and then he barely acknowledged it?? The other ones, I dunno, I wanted to be on your side and it sounds frustrating for you. Then again, I won't fault other people for their food preferences. If you're no longer enjoying baking for yourself, and you've seen over and over that these others don't like the same things you do, by all means stop doing it. (The goat cheese-sweet potatoes recipe looks delicious, I'm trying it this weekend!)

Cristina Kollet said...

If you were my neighbor, I'd be making up reasons to have pot lucks just have any one of those dishes.

It all sounds great. I know where you're coming from, I've had the same experience with handmade gifts. I watched a bride open a hand embroidered handkerchief I made her as a shower gift and look at it as if she'd unwrapped a used tissue.

I hope you'll still make those things for yourself. They sound amazing.

Steph said...

@ C: That spoon-bread recipe is OUT OF THIS WORLD. I made it for my parents and they polished off the entire thing in one sitting. I adore Heidi Swanson.

And, I guess I'm not so much critical of others' food preferences as I am of the flat refusal to try anything that's not what they know. Not only are you missing out on so much good stuff, the way I was raised it's bad manners to only fill up your plate with stuff you like and not try a little of everything.

Not everybody hated everything all the time at every potluck - somtimes I hit potluck gold. My chicken fajita dip always disappeared and I got requests for the recipe, people asked to take home extra slices of pear-asiago-rosemary pie. I just don't know why it took me so many years to tell myself, "You know what? You don't HAVE to go all-out all the time. Nobody is going to care if the pastry on your pot pie isn't quite flaky enough. You don't HAVE to show up at every occasion with two pies and a bottle of wine. The world will not end if you bring store-bought food. If you know the crowd isn't going to be appreciate, why bother making something and hoping they'll like it? Your feelings will only be hurt." I can't figure out why it took me so long for that light bulb to come on.

@K: I know the feeling - I'm pretty careful who I knit for these days, too! I only make stuff as a request, or if I know the person is into handmade. Saved me so much work this Christmas.