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Potluck: A foreign concept in Italy

potluckLast weekend my Italian conversation group got together for a potluck at our house. We do this periodically because, in addition to being fans of the Italian language, we’re all sort of foodies. We’ll take advantage of any excuse to get together with other foodies and speak progressively worse (or better, depending on your perspective) Italian with each additional glass of wine. And what better way to host a party with 10+ people than potluck style?

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know what “potluck” meant. It’s always been part of my lexicon, and it is – hands down – the easiest way to host a party. But even though it makes perfect sense to Americans, it didn’t seem like it was a very Italian thing. So during our potluck gathering last weekend, I asked our Italian teacher and her husband (both from the Veneto) about it, and they both confirmed my suspicions – until they arrived in the US, they’d never even heard the term. In fact, the first potluck they were invited to by someone at the husband’s workplace caused a bit of a panic, as he came home and told her they’d been invited to a potluck, hoping she’d know what it meant. (She didn’t.)

They’re well-versed in the ways of the potluck now, but bringing it up last weekend gave us all a chance to chat about it again. They said that sometimes people will have family members help out with a big meal by bringing something, but the extra contribution is always prescribed to the letter, and even those occasions are rare. Additionally, Italian meals aren’t eaten with all the courses together on one plate – Italian meals come in waves. Putting your risotto next to your steak on one plate would be considered molto strano in Italy, and that is, of course, the very nature of the potluck.

At the party, a couple dictionaries were produced – an old Oxford English and a newer Italian-English – to see if we could find a word in Italian for potluck. We couldn’t. We also wanted to see about the origins of the English word, but the Oxford English was no help as it focused entirely on another meaning (which I’d never even heard until that night – definition #3 here). Our best guess was that the definition of potluck we’re used to in the US has something to do with the concept of a Native American “potlatch” – but again, it was just a guess. And now I read in Wikipedia – so you know it must be right – that it has nothing to do with potlatch at all.

At any rate, it was a complete coincidence that the following day I read this entry about the idea of potluck in Italy. So, I guess they do happen – they’re just very carefully overseen by whoever’s hosting, like our teacher and her husband said. As for a word for “potluck,” however, we couldn’t find one the other night. So we made a phrase up – la pentola di fortuna – the saucepan (pot) of luck. Ah, well, after several glasses of wine, it made us laugh at least.