By Anna Thomas
What can I bring?
These words have launched some of my best social evenings—sometimes spoken by me, sometimes by a friend. From here, it wanders into the pleasant territory of who else should come, who should bring dessert and who can be counted on for a good bottle of wine. Pretty soon we are hanging out and enjoying a relaxed winter evening together.
The casual potluck is a great American institution and the answer to most of our hosting (or guesting) anxieties. A few good friends come together, no one has to do much work and short notice only makes it better—no one has time to get nervous about getting it right! Because as long as you’re getting together with your friends, it’s right.
The ease and inclusiveness of a potluck become even more gratifying during and after the holidays. The big events—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, the Burns Supper (end of January; look it up!)—are often ritualized meals: large, elaborate and locked in tradition. At my house, we have to have porcini soup on Christmas Eve. You might have had turkey and oyster stuffing for Thanksgiving, and will have blini for the caviar on New Year’s Eve. These traditions make a holiday meal both wonderful and a lot of work.
But what about all the other dinners of the chilly winter months? Evenings are long and dark, begging for a fire in the fireplace. A cozy, intimate gathering that can be put together easily is just what I want for all these non-holiday dinners, and a big, hearty soup is my favorite way to anchor the meal.
It really goes like this. . .
Me: I have a big pot of soup on the stove. Come over.
You: Yes! What can I bring?
When I was writing Love Soup (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009), I probably had a hundred soup potlucks with my Ojai tribe. With my new book, Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table (W.W. Norton & Co., 2016), I turned my thoughts to the idea of hospitality without anxiety in a larger way: how to make sure that everyone at the table could feel welcome and well fed, whether they were vegan, vegetarian or ate anything and everything. How to have the sometimes-warring food tribes all sit down together.
The great big soup potluck still seems the right answer. I like to start with a vegan soup that is hearty and soul-satisfying all by itself but can be elaborated with a garnish of cheese, or the addition of just the right seafood or meat, for those who are closer to the omnivore end of the curve. Everyone eats the same meal, but in variations.
I make the big pot of soup. I do it on a Sunday afternoon, or an evening when I’m reading scripts because so much of it is what my friend Lisa calls “meanwhile cooking.” I’m answering emails while the beans are simmering and the onions caramelizing. Then I tell my friends what they can bring.
Someone can make a batch of Mojo Verde, that bright, snappy green spread, good on crostini, with or without the fresh goat cheese.
Someone else puts together a salad, either this terrific winter salad based on Italian parsley and radishes with tart dried cherries or cranberries and chopped walnuts mixed in, or whatever salad they like.
Another friend might like to bake. Don’t be shy! Make a moist, rich-flavored (and vegan) pumpkin gingerbread. It can be served with ice cream or on its own.
And that person who doesn’t cook, doesn’t even go in the kitchen? Bring some Italian sausage; we’ll slice it up and sauté sausage coins to drop into the soup for the omnivores.
At my table, everyone is happy. No one needs to pick their way around the plate, and no one needs to feel guilty. We can all sit down and have an easy dinner together.
Come on, potluckers, let’s keep the party going all winter!
Anna Thomas is a Los Angeles–based screenwriter and cookbook author who spent years entertaining friends and family while living in Ojai. Her latest cookbook is Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table (W.W. Norton & Co., 2016).