Noe Valley Voice November 2009

The Last Page: Potluck Unlucky

by Margaret Corrigan Wooll

It started with a successful batch of twice-baked sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner. The recipe, cribbed from Martha Stewart and faithfully executed without innovation or improvement, offered a satisfying potato alternative to that sticky orange doppelgänger--the candied or marshmallow-covered yam. Twice-baked and fast-eaten. I was smitten.

A week later, we received an invitation for a holiday open house and potluck.

Now, in the rural pocket of Colorado where I grew up, no event, big or small, was complete without the potluck, a communal exercise in overconsumption where each family brought one dish to share. Women had their "go-to" recipes, and reputations were built on a particularly fine pecan pie or basket of feather-light dinner rolls. There were certain rules to a potluck--never take an unproven dish; less is more; visual appeal is everything--rules my mother never followed. Amid Tupperware bowls of taco salad and baked macaroni, chocolate-frosted sheet cakes, and Jell-O molds, Mom's creative amalgamations in slightly burned pans and recycled margarine tubs were not always well received. Fruit cocktail cake with caramel fudge icing, split pea and sausage casserole with Ritz cracker crust, jalapeño-lime-jelly-cream-cheese spread. I vowed never to suffer the humiliation of an untouched dish.

But I am an educated woman. I am not defined by my cooking. Besides, this was not my mother's potluck. This was California and involved buying a new dress.

"We're assigned a vegetable," my husband said.

"A vegetable?" Visions of sugary holiday confections disappeared. How could my culinary skills shine when constrained to a vegetable? Vegetables I bought fresh, steamed quickly, and served unadorned.

Then, sweet inspiration, the sweet potato. I would improvise a buffet-sized version, elegant yet homey, a dressed-up bite of soul, comfort food in evening wear. I searched the Web, amassed recipes.

I should have tried a practice run.

I made a big batch, mixed yam and sweet. The "dough" lacked structural integrity, and no matter how long it chilled, defied shaping. Where I envisioned petite, gold-dusted florets, I crafted amorphous orange blobs bristling with pecan spikes. I hoped more baking time would help.

Dressed and with minutes to spare, I pulled them from the oven. They looked like porcupines. And not in a good way. I ditched the plastic tray and arranged them on my best platter. Now they looked like porcupines on a nice plate.

"What do you think?" I asked my husband, avoiding his eyes.

"They're fine," he said, avoiding mine. "What are they again?"

At the party, my offering glowed radioactively next to the stuffed mushrooms and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. I helped myself to a large glass of Cabernet. I met a man with a successful new business and another who was making a movie, but no matter how I tried, I couldn't tear my eyes from that platter, flashing like a lonely beacon from across the room. Keeping tabs was easy because the tab wasn't changing. "Go take a couple," I finally hissed into my husband's ear.

"What?" he was blissfully unaware of the lack of progress of our dish.

"Please, just take some sweet potato--get the ball rolling." It helped, but not much. I helped myself to more Cabernet.

Toward the end of the evening, our jovial host appeared. "Here," he said, thrusting something into our circle. "I'm trying to move some of these, uh"--he paused and to my horror I saw it was the blue platter full of nut-studded mounds--"these ... ?"

Someone said, "I think they're yam balls," at the same moment as I mumbled "sweet potato croquettes."

"Yam balls," our host roared, making a wine-induced face. Everyone tittered. The rules I disregarded made themselves known once again. A dish must be immediately recognizable. Ingredients should be either universally loved or indisputably sophisticated. I willed myself out of my body and under the ottoman.

"Sweet potato croquettes," I whispered again through clenched teeth. My husband, half-smile fixed on his face, patted my hand.

Yam balls. I finished off my wine as the host wandered away to push his wares elsewhere. "Yam balls" echoed around the room.

How could this be happening? I wasn't my mother. I improvise but know the value of following a recipe. Friends look forward to coming for dinner. My contributions at book club are rarely disdained. My husband brags about how well he eats.

The sweet potato situation hadn't improved by the time the crowd began to thin. Another fifteen minutes and there'd be no hope of escaping unnoticed. I debated abandoning the platter, but it was a wedding present and not inexpensive. One more rule forgotten: use an attractive, but disposable, container--disposability equals deniability.

Amid a flurry of departures, we snagged the tray and bolted toward the door. We would have made it, too, but at the last moment, our host spied us. "Wait, I'll walk you out," he said as I turned away, trying to hide the huge platter in the less huge bosom of my evening dress. His eyes fell on the plate. "Oh, you brought the..."

"Yam balls," I said. Next time, I think I'll just bring a Cabernet. It's my mother's favorite.

Twenty-first Street resident Margaret Corrigan Wooll is a fabulous cook--no, really. She is also a writer and the mother of a three-year-old boy. When she isn't encouraging bad behavior on playgrounds, she says, she's taking up space in Noe Valley cafés or the public library. Her novel, Marriage Counseling for Liars, is currently looking for a publishing home.


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