A Sociology of Potluck

Potluck. As I grew up in the suburbs in Japan where people try to minimize interaction with their neighbors, the idea of having someone come over to your place and make them bring food was foreign to me. By definition, potluck is a collection of dishes that happen to be available on a table at a given time. So you cannot know who will come, how many people will be there, and what they will bring. And yet, you have to make the best decision about food you bring to maximize the joy of the party. It is a difficult game. I wrote this entry in Japanese to share the difficulty I have been having with the potluck culture. Then I noticed that this may be of interest to some of you who are in Hawai'i or US and are unfamiliar with this culture like me. So I rewrote the essay in English knowing that it will become a terrible writing*1. In what follows, I want to abuse my education to do a pseudo-sociology of potluck*2

*1 After you read this essay, you will know how difficult it is to write in a language of which you are not native. But anyway I apologize for my errors in advance because I am a humble person.
*2 For now, I will put aside the question of "what is real sociology" because nobody knows what sociology is. 

Bros. Problem

Potluck presents something of a sociological curiosity because a choice of food people bring (or not) is a matter of social attributes such as gender, race, and class. This is clearly manifested in what I call bros. problem. Bros. here refers to masculine men as it is broadly conceived. 

A few years of my observations and interviews with potluck participants revealed that we are very likely to run short of food when there were too many bros. in a party. This is because A) bros. bring beers but not food, or B) bros. don't bring anything*3. Generally speaking, bros. don't cook, or think they are entitled to eat even if they don't cook. Please note that my intention is not to claim that "women" can cook while "men" can't. The problem belongs to bros. 

There is nothing sadder in life than not having enough food. It reminds us of our poor economic situation than anything. Hence, in potluck, having more than adequate amount of food is important. If so, how to discourage bros. or anyone who does not bring food from such unethical behavior is an important question. 

*3 Bros. hypothesis A is supported when bros. hypothesis B is rejected and vice versa.

Free Rider Problem

This is indeed one of the persisting questions in social scienceTo borrow from the economist Mancur Olson who named this issue as "the free rider problem," it is the wisest behavior for individuals to not bring anything but just eat and leave the party. In that way, they can enjoy benefits of being a part of the system without investing any money, time or taking risks. 

Olson cautioned that if there were too many free riders, social organizations, institutions, and social movements would fail. Free riders can undermine the very system of potluck as well. Akino Oshiro, an international student at UHM and a serial potluck organizer questioned the morality of free riders by arguing, "potluck begins at the moment you start cooking. Spending time thinking about others is a crucial element of potluck."

However, I also noticed that the free rider problem is peculiar to student communities and not likely to occur in others, because, in Hawai'i, there seem to exist other mechanisms that discourage people from free riding such as peer-pressure within a local community. 

Great-Minds-Think-Alike Problem, or Fox Party Problem

In one potluck I attended, people were eating curry with spaghetti because everybody brought curry but not rice. Sometimes we only have beers, other times only curry, some other times only rice. This is the central problem of potluck. For the lack of a better word, I call this problem as "Great-Minds-Think-Alike Problem." A party tends to attract people from similar socio-economic backgrounds. And they tend to bring similar stuff. 

I found a Japanese woman calling this as the "Fox Party problem." Accordingly, it is so common among Japanese middle-class housewives to bring rice-stuffed deep-fried tofu to a party that they often find tons of this tofu dish on a table, which is known as the favorite food of foxes*4. Thus, the party turns to be a fox party. 

*4 I don't know why, though.

Race and Authenticity Problem

When I came to Hawai'i, I had no idea what to bring to potluck (and even what potluck is). I spent days and nights thinking about food that is neither too low-culture nor too snobby. Eventually, I made Spanish Omelette and brought it to potluck with a bottle of wine. I placed it on a table, explained that this dish is called Spanish Omelette. I thought I made a good choice from a perspective of middle-class Japanese. To my surprise, the first reaction I got was, "but you are Japanese, aren't you?" It was shocking. I learned that, as a Japanese, I was supposed to bring Sushi or Sashimi or something Japanese. Spanish Omelette was reserved for Spanish and their heirs. 

It's easy to denounce this as racism. But the problem is more complicated because I also find it difficult to appreciate Sushi a Korean made or miso soup made by a Thai. To be honest, I myself want something more authentic that I cannot cook such as Korean pancakes or Thai Curry. Thus, i
n an intercultural setting, potluck involves a question of cultural authenticity. 

To make matters worse, Japanese food she or he wants is the Japanese food that exists in their imagination. People are often conservative and don't even try food that they have never seen before. I sometimes brought REAL Japanese food (in my definition) to potluck and people don't eat simply because those are not the Japanese food they know. I am expected to make "authentic" California roll or Salmon sushi. Even though there aren't such dishes in Japan. This is not a problem peculiar to Japan. We may be disappointed by a Vietnamese bringing Salmon Sushi even though it is indeed very popular in Vietnam and thus real. 

In the end, however, potluck is for f
un but not justice. So I think it is better to make an "authentic" California roll that everyone wants rather than to be outraged by stereotyping. 

Judgement Problem

Potluck is also about inequality. We pretend to be having some fun with others and evaluating them based on food at the same time. Pierre Bourdieu, the leading sociologist of our time, refuted Immanuel Kant's thesis of pure taste. Unlike Kant, who sees taste have a universal and natural character, Bourdieu contended that taste is a struggle over power, in which we laugh at ill-informed others, express our privilege, and draw a boundary between the have and the have-nots. Potluck is a space this struggle takes place. 

Bringing food that reflects the middle-class's longing for the upper class, something we buy at Safeway's deli, or working class beers instead of wine can be evaluated as the lack of sophistication. Potluck is a cruel game where internalized inequality is manifested to its full extent. How ugly it is... perhaps I should not join potluck anymore.

Toward a Better Potluck

The easiest solution to the problems listed above is to make a list of food and drinks people will bring. After I uploaded a Japanese version of this essay, some people suggested me this option. However, others also pointed out that knowing what other people will bring reduces the joy of potluck. Or, perhaps it is not potluck anymore if it is too well planned. Potluck is fun because it is unpredictable. And it is also the problem. I will conclude this essay by noting the lessons for my next potluck;
  1. Diversity is important. Bringing in diverse people is the key to solving the "Great-Minds-Think-Alike Problem."
  2. Freeriders are inevitable. Let's try to make a little bit of extra when I make food.
  3. Don't be outraged by stereotyping and prepare whatever people expect of me. But be careful not going too "real" or "ethnic". People in general, Americans in particular, are not good at eating things that they don't know. 
  4. Don't laugh at other people's food. Let's try not judge others. I should be thankful for the time and efforts people spent to make food.
In the end, perhaps it is important to recall that potluck is for fun not for perfection.