It’s 7 o’clock on a Thursday night in June and my backyard in Nashville, Tennessee, is filling up with laughter, conversation, and delicious food. My cohost Gigi Gaskins and I welcome our guests, eager to see the dishes they’ve brought to share. Over the five years we’ve been hosting a monthly potluck dinner, we’ve enjoyed countless tasty offerings. Think tender, just-picked green beans served with roasted corn, from avid gardener Ray; a deep-dish lemon-heirloom tomato tart from Liz, an innkeeper; and a plum crumble made from tangy Santa Rosa plums I foraged in my backyard.
As we sit down with our plates in the shade of giant maple and catalpa trees, I look at the assembled group of friends, old and new, with contentment. Cooking for groups of people is one of my greatest joys. For 20 years, I worked as a chef and caterer in Nashville. I believe that cooking and sharing food is one of our basic connection points as humans. And, for me, hosting a potluck is a heartfelt way to express support for local food and farmers, to get inspired to cook seasonally, and to build community.
Gigi and I first got the idea of starting a community potluck in 2009 when Nashville’s local food movement was really taking off. People were rallying around the idea that growing and distributing food locally can help more people eat well and can lessen the environmental toll of agriculture. Farmers’ markets were expanding, public schools were planting gardens, and local chefs were going farm-to-table. New nonprofits were helping to get fresh produce into underserved communities.
During this time, I sold my catering business and began volunteering with a program teaching low-income teens how to cook. Meanwhile, Gigi, a professional hatmaker, bought three run-down lots in a low-income neighborhood and planted them with berry patches, herbs, and all kinds of vegetables, which she gave away to the neighbors and sold to local chefs. (She’s since turned over the farm to The Nashville Food Project to raise crops to feed the homeless and hungry.)
From that first shared dinner in 2009, our convivial gatherings have grown into a tradition we’ve named the “Third Thursday Potluck.” On the third Thursday of each month, we invite a group of friends and acquaintances: chefs, food activists, beekeepers, gardeners, cooks, and bakers. We leave the menu unscripted, with only one request: to use as many local, seasonal ingredients as possible. The resulting feast, harvested from gardens and farms, celebrates the bounty of the moment.
I marvel at all the connections we’ve made at the table: the friends we’ve found, the foods we’ve shared, the small ways that we’ve supported the food movement. We’ve toasted one potlucker who started an artisan cheese business, and another who opened an organic bakery. We’ve supported one another through marriages, births, divorces, illness, and job changes. We’ve shared trade secrets, like tips from Joy, a home baker, for making her flaky whole-wheat biscuits, or Gigi’s advice on raising chickens. We’ve raised funds for nonprofits. Together, we’ve proven that sharing good food cultivates goodwill.
Through the years, as our appreciation for local foods has deepened, so has our commitment to support a healthier agricultural system. For me, it’s the daily choices that matter. I choose to compost, to garden, to buy from neighboring farms. I choose to cook from the day’s harvest and savor it with friends. It’s rare to effect great change as an individual, but every day, we each can make small steps that lead to something great.
START YOUR OWN
Vienneau shares her 5 tips for a stress-free potluck dinner
1. Choose a complementary cohost
Two heads, two hearts, and two sets of hands will lighten your load. If you-re a good cook, find a partner who-s good at decoration and logistics, or vice versa.
2. Triple your guest list
Bear in mind how many guests you can accommodate, but remember that not everyone can come. I plan for a 30 percent attendance rate.
3. Go shabby chic
Scour the Goodwill, discount stores, or flea market for supplies: linens, plates, cutlery. We use an array of Mason jars and wine glasses, and a hodgepodge of plates in different colors.
4. Keep the menu flexible
Make one anchor dish that serves about 10 people, and let your guests fill in the rest according to their taste.
5. Stay mindful
While you prep, keep breathing, relish each moment, and remember your intention. Meals prepared with lovingkindness taste better!
Here are 4 recipes to make your own backyard potluck a hit: