Ka Puana: Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned from Potluck

By Catherine Bridges Tarleton

“We’re having potluck on Tuesday,” said my boss. “For the January birthdays.” She nodded at the paper on her desk. “What do I sign you up for?”

On no.

Potluck. The Initiation. What do I bring to the table here? What am I willing to expose to the taste buds and scrutiny of an office full of veterans of the ancient competition of the kitchen? Do I shoot for something expensive and impressive? Should I make the commitment of lasagna, or express humility with oatmeal cookies? Do I have the right container? Am I ready for this?

“Side dish,” I said.

Monday night, I made a nice light pasta salad with rotini and fresh broccoli, black olives, a little basil and onion, olive oil. I spooned it into a plastic bowl. I took it to work, forgot the serving spoon, and put it on the table with the Tupperwares and foil-covered dishes.

All morning, wonderful smells wandered into my office like people with nothing to do . Ginger, teriyaki, something salty and mysterious. More dishes came in; more desks were cleared to make room and everyone was checking out the food. I heard fragments of conversation that made very little sense to me.

“Is this your Aunties butter mochi?” asked Pua, the front desk clerk who knew everyone and everything cooking.

“No, it’s the microwave kind,” said Herman. He was a smallish Asian-looking man who did his best to make me feel at home. “What did you bring?”

“Oh. I didn’t have time cook,” said Pua. “I just went to the Dai-Zen. Oh look, somebody brought kamaboko. I don’t feel so bad.”

“Where’s the rice?” asked Sarah, a tiny Filipina, ninety pounds soaking wet. “I brought pork and peas. Make some room.”

“They’ll bring rice up from the kitchen,” said Pua. “Don’t worry. Look at the Jell-O. Who has time to do all that? Must be Angela. Her children are grown.”

It went on and on.

About ten o’clock, nobody could wait any longer. They started taking the covers off and passing out plates. I went in to the lunchroom, picked up a segmented cardboard plate and a plastic fork instead of the wooden chopsticks wrapped in paper. There was an amazing display of food and I was starving.

But I didn’t know what anything was.

There was a plate of big green checkers that seemed to be rice rolled up in Christmas paper with tuna fish inside. There was a white box with something squishy and damp, like corners of manila envelopes stuffed with rice and sawdust. A plastic bowl of tofu, some kind of fish and what looked like weeds sat by a plate of taupe-colored vegetables that wiggled like rubber bands. An oblong dish in a quilted cozy steamed with brown shreds and green peas next to a square casserole of basically bones in sauce. There was an aluminum foil chafer of plain white rice with another one waiting on the side. Colorful Tupperwares and Rubbermaids displayed slices of potatoes that were actually purple, incredible rainbow-layered Jell-O cut into little squares and something that looked like mashed potatoes but smelled like mustard.

There was my pasta salad. Untouched.

I was two months new from Virginia where potlucks, which we called covered-dish suppers, were largely church affairs and were for the most part parades of casseroles and desserts. Macaroni and cheese, meatball stroganoff, cupcakes. This was Klingon food.

“What’s that?” Herman asked me.

“Pasta salad,” I said.

“Oh, he said. “I had that before in Las Vegas.”

He made a big pile on his plate with the little plastic fork. “Sarah,” he said. “Try some of her pasta salad.” He put some on her plate, and Pua’s too.

“Mmm,” they all said. “How you make this?”

I told them what was in it.

“Like macaroni salad but no mayonnaise?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said.

“Mmm,” they all said again, politely.

Herman asked, “You like Filipino food?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Here,” He put some of the brown stuff on my plate.

“Sarah made this. Pork and peas. Try.”

They loaded up my plate. They told me what everything was. I learned about cone sushi and oxtail and gobo. They had to call Auntie May into the room to tell me about the sushi roll because she had some way of frying the tuna in sugar and shoyu that made all the difference.

I took home three-fourths of the pasta salad. We had it for dinner.

From the mainland, you think of Hawai‘i as a place where everyone eats fresh fish all the time. Where tanned bodies stroll down salad bars positioned under the trees to catch the mangos as they drop onto your plate. Simple, fresh Edenic nourishment. Nothing prepares you for the complex cultural experience of potluck.

I resolved to meet the challenge. ❖

“Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Potluck” is one of a collection of short stories in Catherine Bridges Tarleton’s book, Potluck: Stories That Taste Like Hawai‘i. The author, originally from Virginia, moved to Hawai‘i Island in 1989. Illustration by Leigh Morrison.

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