Take the Potluck Dinner Challenge


A few weeks ago, I read an article on Facebook about a writer/editor couple in Pittsburgh, PA who’d dreamed up a low-stress way of “forcing” themselves into being more sociable again, Friday Night Meatballs. Tired of being too tired to go out most weeks and too intimidated to throw proper adult dinner parties, they came up with a simple and intriguing solution: Every Friday night, they set the table and have a giant pot of spaghetti and meatballs at the ready. They have a one-hour cleaning rule beforehand. No fuss, no muss. The house is always one-hour clean and fussy clean-freak guests can suck it. They open their door at 7pm to ALL of their circles of friends, clients, neighbors, and family members. Everyone is invited. All you have to do is RSVP and it’s capped at 10 adults plus kids. They’ve been doing it for nine months now and say they it’s changed their lives in extraordinary ways.

As soon as I read this, I knew I was going to do the same thing. I’ve been feeling for awhile now that the virtualizing of our social lives has gone too far; that we’re actually losing our ability to casually socialize, to carry on meaningful face-to-face conversations, to negotiate differences of opinion. We live more as avatars of ourselves, projections, than actual people. I see these dinners as being a possible corrective to that.

Not wanting even the “burden” of always having to cook a large entree for everyone, I decided to make it potluck instead. I announced “Potluck Dinner at Chez Branwyn” last week and posted a spreadsheet so people could easily sign up and say what they were bringing (and see what others were bringing). As with the Pittsburgh couple, I immediately got a very positive response to the idea. I’m now committed to doing these every Thursday when I’m in town and don’t have another pressing event to go to.

For starters, I decided to experiment with a 20-person cap instead of ten. One cool thing about this idea is that I can help shape the social dynamics by changing the number of invitee slots. Some weeks, I might want an intimate group and will offer fewer slots on the spreadsheet. Other weeks, if I’m in the mood for a more raucous meal, I’ll over more slots.

I also committed myself to not sweating ANY of the details. Ultimately, the specific food will be unimportant, the mix of guests equally so, and the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of my house (and the most embarrassing excuse for a stick-furniture dining room table EVER) will be what it is.

This all really is a perceptual shift. This IS NOT a dinner party. This is simply dinner at Gareth’s house every Thursday night that up to 20 friends are invited to. For the first one, and going forward, I even posted a notice on my Facebook wall (to Friends), at the start time of 6:30pm, saying: “It’s 6:30. The door is open to my house. Dinner is served. Come on by if you want.” (And included my address and phone number.)

When I posted the open invite for my first dinner to my 2,000 FB friends, I had no takers for days. Of course, my first reaction was to panic. But then I reminded myself it didn’t matter. It’s just dinner on Thursday night. I’m going to be here eating at the table, regardless. Chill out, home slice! Whoever comes, comes.

It was just a few days before that one person finally signed up, a FB friend I didn’t even know. For awhile, it looked like it was just going to be the two of us. Which would’ve been fine. Eventually, she invited another friend (whom I also didn’t know). By Thursday afternoon, that was it. Lots of people began sending messages and FB posts with heartfelt “I’m so sorry I can’t make it!” messages. I told everyone: No worries. Next week. The week after that. The third Thursday in January. It’ll happen. It’s not an event that needs to be over-planned. Stressed over. Or apologized for. I keep telling myself all of this. It takes some getting used to.

The first dinner was absolutely lovely. I couldn’t have been happier (or more laid back) about how it all went down. It ended up being five of us, which was actually a nice size for civilized conversation. The dinner was a yummy spaghetti bolognese, a fancy green salad, and peach cobbler for desert. And a friend brought a thermos of Manhattans. There was hardly a phone in sight all night and we had lots of conversation. About actual THINGS.

Word got out after the first dinner (I did a FB post) and many people have expressed interest in next week and future dinners. I already have 16 people signed up for this coming Thursday. One friend, who’s an amazing cook, is bringing chicken tikka masala. Another, a bread baker, is making nan.

At the beginning of the year, I made something of a resolution to start doing less online socializing and more and deeper face-to-face hanging out. I told myself I was going to have more one-on-one dinners with interesting people and out-of-touch friends, and some small dinner parties. I’ve managed ONE such dinner this year (before last Thursday). It’s October! Like the couple in Pittsburgh, the pressures we normally put on ourselves when entertaining are just too much to overcome during a typical, frequently frantic, workweek. Somehow, this approach of “just dinner at my house — come if you like” feels categorically different.

If you’re feeling the same way, and I have a suspicion many of you reading this are, why not consider taking the Potluck Dinner Challenge? It’s easy, it’s an extremely liberating approach to “entertaining,” and it’s a great way to connect, reconnect, and disconnect from the Skinnerian push-button, get treat self-absorption we seem to have become so addicted to online.

So, come this Thursday night, my door will be open, my table set. Consider opening yours to your circles. If you do, I’d love to hear how your dinners are going and about any tweaks you’ve made to the formula.

Published by Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and "lazy person's memoir," called Borg Like Me.

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