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How to Survive Potluck Dinners

It strikes terror in the hearts of Moms and Dads. Symptoms include alarm, confusion, despair. It’s called “Potluck Panic” and it happens when your child’s school asks you to cook a dish. You’ve no idea what to make and your cookbooks yield meaningless recipes like Coq au Vin, Lady Baltimore Cake and Major Grey’s Mango Chutney. The silver lining is that this particular primal fear abates with high school graduation.

We fear potluck because we want what we cook to be enjoyed, not judged, and we don’t want to slog it back home and eat it for a week. Potluck used to be anxiety-free. The idea originated in the Middle Ages when leftovers, especially in taverns and inns, would be kept bubbling in a pot. When you showed up for a meal you got the "luck of the pot.”

You want to do better than that, so instead of salad in a bag, you up the ante to crudités (a French appetizer of vegetables and vinaigrette dip), escalating to “Bagna Cauda” (a warm Italian dip of anchovy, garlic, butter and olive oil with raw or roasted vegetables.) After a frenzy of second-guessing, you end up with a heap of torpedo-shaped carrots laying siege to a bowl of Thousand Island dressing.

Forget about stressing and impressing. School potlucks are fun. If fear stops you from putting your best culinary foot forward, or if you’re unsure of what first-graders or teens actually eat, you need that been-there-done-that parent who knows what works. You need the quintessential “Team Mom.” You need Cherie Kimmons.

With two kids at two different schools both engaged in sports, she cleaned uniforms for “lacrosse, soccer, basketball, football and baseball, plus ballet and horseback riding which don’t have uniforms but do produce lots of laundry,” laughs Kimmons of Knoxville, Tennessee. She laundered a lot but cooked even more. She made pre- and post-game meals, fed parents and visiting teams at double-headers, supplied concession stands, PTA meetings, potlucks and bake sales. She learned how to feed a lot of people for a lot of different occasions. She’s seen what kids eat and what they run from. And shlle put it all in, “Potluck Survival Guide: Care and Feeding of The Athletic Supporter.”

It’s equal parts cookbook and handbook, laced with humor and organized by section. “Pre-Game Introduction” lays out pre- and post-game nutritional guidelines. “Game Plan” explains how to organize an entire potluck dinner if, God forbid, you’re in charge. “Feeding Kids” features “Kid Friendly Menus” and “Kid Friendly Recipes.” ”Match the needs of your crowd to your menu,” she advises. For example, little kids like finger foods and things that look like fast food, so try sausage links rolled in pancakes, mini empanadas, or fruit kebabs with yogurt dipping sauce.

Teens prefer home-cooked goodies like brisket and mashed potatoes, turkey and dressing, soup and cornbread. Teenage girls love salad. “Seven Layer Dip is huge. You can omit the meat for vegetarians, and,” Kimmons notes, “boys like that it’ll make them fart later on.” Hmmm.

Kimmons grew up in a large Cajun-Italian family, eating delicious, highly flavored food with everything made from scratch. Hers, she says, is a book of collected and adapted recipes rather than created ones, some from scratch, some not. “It’s the living legacy of the women and men who came before me and figured a lot of this out. I was just lucky enough to consolidate the information.”

She emphasizes the basics in a chapter called, “Mastering The Fundamentals”, with recipes for boiled chicken, mashed potatoes and perfect pasta. This section contains the building blocks for countless other recipes. Once you’ve got these down, she says, you’ll be confident with any recipe and begin experimenting on your own.

Recipes run the gamut from authentic Chicken Gumbo to Cheddar Rosemary Dates to Stuffing with a Kick featuring poblanos, pecans, cilantro and chipotle chili powder. There’s Pastor John Mullaney’s Comfort Lasagna, Leah Moir’s Cowpuncher Beef and Rice, and Tillie Lungaro’s Chicken Spaghetti For a Crowd, which Kimmons says combines “every flavor of canned soup ever created…you’ll need a wheelbarrow.” The Best Cake Mix says to buy store-bought cake mix, ignore the directions and follow hers. “Turns the cake into ‘must have’ territory,” she says.

Some dishes aren’t the healthiest. “Some are, some aren’t,” Kimmons concedes, so she always offers substitutions. Halve the butter and use half and half, or substitute two-percent milk for one of the two cups of cream in Shirley Jarvis’ Corn Pudding. Not all fat substitutions are equal, though. “Mac and cheese are just sad when made with low-fat cheese and skim milk,” she says. “Some recipes are not made to be light. One reason kids do like them is because they have lots of cheese, sugar or cream.” Balance a rich entree with fruit for dessert, not a hunk of chocolate cake, she advises. “You don’t want to lose sight of the goal and the goal is to get food into your kids.”

Kimmons says kids will be narrow eaters unless they experience lots of variety and flavors. And teaching them how to cook lets them make healthy choices. For Kimmons, it’s a point of pride. “My kids are wonderful cooks. My twenty-three year old son called the other day to ask, ‘Mom does Jambalaya have a roux?’ I was so thrilled he knew what a roux was. And he even pronounced Jambalaya right.”

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