A Christmas Love Letter

When I was pregnant with my daughter my husband worked second shift, and five nights a week I was left to wrangle our then two-year old son by myself. After working all day I lacked the energy to cook, clean, and play with him. My solution was to find different people to feed and entertain us every night. For the last two months of my pregnancy, Quinn and I ate with different people five nights a week – it was truly “using our village” as Quinn’s day care provider would say. That was how I stumbled on Potluck.

Potluck is a group of (then) neighbors on Fry Street in Saint Paul that meet for dinner every Thursday. It started when neighbor Julie Hellwich’s daughter was in grade school, and she wanted to build community around her. So she invited neighbors and families from school to share dinner every week. I started attending in about year seven. Quinn is now eight, Daphne is five, and almost without fail we eat dinner every Thursday night with a group of people who probably would not have come together otherwise.

Beautiful Julie and her beautiful garden

Beautiful Julie and her beautiful garden

Keep it Simple.

The concept is simple. The host family, which mostly rotates between two households, provides the main dish. Everyone else brings a dish – side, dessert, bread, wine, whatever. It is better to show up with nothing or a bag of chips from Super America than not show up. There is no theme or prior planning. Amazingly we have almost always had a great mix of food – serendipity working for us. In seven years I can remember ordering “rescue pizza” three times. Once we had five cakes and a salad. That was a really great Potluck. No one has ever left hungry.

Potluck is every Thursday at 5:30 with a break for Thanksgiving (although this year most of Potluck came to my house anyway). Everyone is welcome. Attendees have included most the neighbors near Fry Street, employees at the Korean grocery store and other neighborhood businesses, people we have met at the store or in an alley (yes, and not even our alley), our families, and other random people. There is a core group of about four families, with a small night being about 10 people ranging to summer Potlucks that have attracted more than 20. I go even when I do not want to because it is important to show up. To show up not only physically, but to show up when I am tired, or cranky, or introverted and allow people to know me at those times, too.

Everyone is Welcome.

For me, the most powerful thing about Potluck is that no one is turned away. Julie admitted to me that she did not like me when we first met (it involved Cool Ranch Doritos and vodka – not my best night for sure), so she was cautious when I began to show up at Potluck. But she genuinely welcomed me and over time we got to know each other for real.

At one time, Quinn was the only child at Potluck. Now there are many.

At one time, Quinn was the only child at Potluck. Now there are many.

Over the years there have been people who have annoyed me to no end, but I grinned and welcomed them and listened to them and got to know them. Eventually I learned to like and appreciate something about each of them. In this, Potluck is a lot like family. We do not choose our families. They annoy us and frustrate us, but, ultimately we love them (mostly). Part of the reason Potluck has lasted more than 15 years now is that everyone is welcome. No matter what. To me, it is different than a group of friends gathering for dinner. There is more intention in building community and welcoming new people.

Community-Building and Place-Making.

So, what does Potluck have to do with streets.mn? Neighborhoods are not just the sidewalks, streets, businesses, and buildings. Neighbors are a special relationship. You do not chose each other like friends. You could be stuck together for decades, so you had better figure out how to get along. Neighbors can completely ignore each other, but I find that harder in an urban neighborhood with small lots. If your neighbor shares a wall or there are only feet between your houses, there is a different need to get along than in more spacious areas.

Potluck has been the incubator for so many neighborhood projects.  Although many neighbors only come to Potluck a few times a year, Potluck has been the engine for meeting people and getting to know them. There is something powerful about sharing food in someone’s home, even only once in a while.

A Potluck Christmas at Julie's table

A Potluck Christmas at Julie’s table

We used that power to build a Paint the Pavement project, an annual block party with more than 100 attendees, shared gardening, keeping an elderly neighbor in her home long after anyone thought she would be, boulevard gardens, and countless other ways that went beyond the families that attended Potluck to the broader neighborhood.

These are the people to call when you need a baby-sitter on short notice, when you erase your hard drive accidentally, to borrow a yard tool, or move a dresser. Being neighbors, these are the things that keep “services” nearby. Things other people have to hire for or drive to obtain, we have across the street.

There was a problem property and neighbors worked hard to maintain safety and livability. Police and council people were impressed with our degree of organization and ability to pack a house with concerned and motivated neighbors, much of which came out of Potluck. Having that base allowed us to bring together much bigger groups when we needed to.

Potluck is the people, the ties, the commitment that makes a plat on a city map into a community.

A Love Letter.

So, this is my Christmas love letter to Potluck. My mother died in September 2015. She loved Christmas and she loved hosting parties. Her Christmas was full of decorations, light, cookies, and music. I was not a big Christmas person before and now it just feels hollow. I force myself to bake cookies and decorate a tree and get presents because of my children, but I am just not into it. Last year Christmas Eve, my first Christmas without my mother, fell on a Thursday. So, we went to Potluck. This year the group decided to spend Christmas Eve together again. It just made sense to all of us since we are family. I am so fortunate and all I had to do was bring cookies and show up nearly every week for eight years.

My mom at Christmas in 2013

My mom at Christmas in 2013

Dana DeMaster

About Dana DeMaster

Dana DeMaster, MPP, is a program evaluator and researcher for human services programs who lives and bikes in Saint Paul. When she’s not analyzing data, she can be found rabble-rousing for neighborhood bike improvements in Saint Paul, playing Legos with her two children, or sewing practical things. You can find some of her other writing on the Grease Rag and Wrench blog.