Mendocino County’s Potluck Culture

Mendocino County’s Potluck Culture

Bring an Open Mind and an Appetite

by Emily Inwood

Homemade goat cheese sprinkled with mixed fresh herbs from the garden, carrot-raisin salad, smoked salmon with various homemade sauces, apple-huckleberry crisp, a tray of ribs, homemade challah, chanterelle and porcini frittata with fresh eggs from the backyard chickens, black bean enchiladas, baked macaroni and cheese, bundt cake . . . these are some of the delicacies one might find at a Mendocino County potluck. With a population of so many foodies and farmers and foragers, it’s no surprise that one of our favorite things to do is gather and eat together.

Whether it’s a school hosting a potluck to accompany a work meeting, a Jewish group celebrating a mitzvah, new parents celebrating the birth of a child, a community center hosting a fundraiser, or an individual looking for an excuse to form warm bonds around breaking bread, the people of Mendocino County love to gather and eat, regardless of where they fall on the store-bought to showing-off culinary spectrum.

There are true artists like Annette Jarvie, editor and food-lover, who recalls, “I attended a wedding where the bride asked guests, in lieu of a present, to bring potluck food. I brought a basket filled with meringue mushrooms, a recipe I’d found years before that is easy and impressive and really looks like little champignon mushrooms. There were two tables for food, one marked “savory” and one marked “sweet.” I put the basket on the sweets table. A while later, visiting the tables, I noticed that my basket had been moved to the savory table, so I moved it back to sweets. A little while later, sure enough, it was back on the savory table. I could not understand why someone thought a guest would bring a basket of raw champignon mushrooms to a wedding, but I moved them back to sweets again, and there they finally stayed.” No doubt they were then properly appreciated.

But you don’t have to be a DIY foodie to feel legit at a potluck. Take-out pizzas from any of our favorite pizzerias, local breads (think Roland’s, Schats, Beaujolais, and Fort Bragg Bakeries) and cheeses (think Pennyroyal Farmstead and Shamrock Artisan), and Kemmy’s pies are delicious solutions for the less-than-confident/ too-busy individuals. “Classing up” fruits and veggies with garnishes and fancy platters is a great way to add a personal touch without cooking or much fuss, as Word of Mouth publisher and potluck enthusiast, Holly Madrigal, does. “When I am feeling lazy and/or rushed, I buy blood oranges and a grapefruit, cut them into wedges, add some really good quality olives and a decent cheese and ta-da! A potluck worthy spread. It helps if this set up is on my neat, long fish plate, garnished with edible flowers.”

It can also be fun to abandon convention and host and/ or attend a “guilty pleasures” potluck, as Sandy Triplett, owner of Mendocino Market, has been known to do. What better way to feel like you are doing justice to your childhood self than to indulge in choices such as Spam, Cap’n Crunch, mini corn dogs, Velveeta, gummy bears, and homey midwestern throwbacks like the food Triplett is most embarrassed to admit to liking: deli-sliced ham spread with cream cheese and rolled around sweet pickles?

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, though, it’s important to have a potluck strategy. Eating ahead of the party might be the most obvious solution for those with special dietary concerns, as is bringing a dish that you know you can safely consume. At many potlucks, guests and/or hosts label foods with an ingredients list, or at least designate dishes with gluten-free or vegan signage. For those who can—and love to—eat everything, getting in the front of the line and taking small samples of many dishes is the best initial strategy and may ensure room for a second helping of the favorites.

It’s a boon to acquire recipes for those dishes that stand out, even if you have to be a nag and will ultimately fail at replicating the original masterpiece. Sometimes potluck attendees are free with their recipes, but don’t count on it. As Suzanne Jennings, retired Albion school teacher recalls, “About forty years ago, I went to one of our legendary potlucks on the Salmon River. A friend of mine made the most delicious chocolate pudding ever. I asked for the recipe, and after three failed attempts, I finally gave up. I still salivate when thinking of that pudding, better than any chocolate mousse or any chocolate dessert I have ever eaten!”

Many such food memories have formed at a potluck, given the nature of sampling new, often tried-and-true creations. Karen Inwood, active member of the potluckfriendly Pacific Textile Art community, says, “When you have the same group meeting for potlucks over the years, certain people are expected to bring their special dishes, and all look forward to tasting that familiar treat again, like Judy’s cheesy potatoes and Peg’s apple cake. Yum!” In such cases, it might be enough to have the creator of the recipe as a consistent member of your potluck gatherings, and associating the delicious food with the sweet people who make it seems to enhance the flavor, texture, and uniqueness of the whole experience.

Following is a recipe whose creator was graciously forthcoming. It’s perfect for any season, anywhere—even for the persnickety potluck participants of Mendocino County.

Marcia Steinfeld’s Orzo Salad with Feta, Olives, and Bell Peppers

Augmented from the Epicurious website, where it is attributed to the October 1997 issue of Bon Appetit—from the Applewood Inn in Guerneville, CA

  • 12 oz orzo

  • 2 T plus 1/2 c olive oil

  • 1-½ c crumbled feta (seasoned with herbs is fine)

  • 1 c each chopped red, yellow, and orange bell pepper

  • 3/4 c pitted Kalamata olives

  • 4 scallions, chopped

  • 2 T capers

  • 1/4 c fresh lemon juice

  • 2 T white wine vinegar

  • 1 T garlic

  • 1-½ tsp dried oregano

  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard

  • 1 tsp cumin

  • 3 T pine nuts

Cook orzo al dente in large pot of boiling salted water. Drain. Rinse with cold water; drain well. Transfer to a large bowl. Toss with 2 T olive oil. Add feta, bell peppers, olives, scallions, and capers. Combine lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, oregano, mustard, and cumin in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in remaining 1/2 c olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add dressing to orzo mixture and toss to blend. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with pine nuts. Can be made 6 hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate or serve immediately.

Emily has called the Mendocino coast home since 1983. She loves to hunt for mushrooms, make pies, and run around outside.