WFAEats
11:03 am
Mon July 14, 2014

A Covered Dish: Less Can Be More

Some call them potlucks or potlatches. In the Carolinas, they’re called a covered dish. The idea is the same: every attendee brings a prepared food item to share.

Deviled eggs
Credit Marshall Astor / Wikimedia

They’re filling events. You go in knowing you must sample every dish and will probably go back for seconds, or at least dessert. No one’s dish should go unsampled. You leave with a loosened belt buckle and happy memories. Good food, laughter, a celebration of friendship.

Recently, ladies from my church held a covered dish and 14 of us gathered at Peggy’s house. She had provided not only the house, but homemade ham biscuits to boot. Add to the mix butter beans, three-bean salad, dilled potato salad, Asian slaw (the kind with crunchy toasted almonds), scalloped apples, monkey bread, a Mandarin orange congealed salad, and corn pudding.

The dessert counter screamed “try this, try that”: chocolate chip cookies, rhubarb pie, and a dessert concoction involving pecan crust, creamed cheese filling and peach topping.

“That looks like the Next Best Thing to Robert Redford,” I said. I knew a chocolate version of the dessert from my Methodist days. It’s a layered dessert that makes any crowd swoon like… well, Robert Redford.

“I had to wonder,” Lottie said, holding a bowl of butter beans. “Should I bring something fancy or just something I know how to make?”

I assured her that a well-tested dish was a good choice. Her fresh butter beans needed no apology, especially since she had added fatback for seasoning. A simple dish amongst so much plenty can charm the most discriminating eater.

My assignment, on the other hand, was deviled eggs. No problem, I can make a mean deviled egg. My mother taught me how. I know the drill about using eggs that are aged a bit so the shells will peel away easily. I know my way around the argument involving mayonnaise and mustard, dill vs. sweet pickle relish, how much paprika to add. This comes with experience. I know not to make them too far ahead so they won’t dry out, weep on the platter, smell up the refrigerator. Deviled eggs could be my signature dish, though they aren’t very easy to transport.

Last week’s covered dish was no “potluck.” Peggy organized everything so that there were no duplicates, no lopsided offerings of starch or fruit or dessert. All food groups were represented. 

But Lottie’s question stuck with me. Without a specific assignment, how does one decide what to bring?

The unwritten rule is that the food be homemade or at least assembled at home. Whole apples would be an odd choice, but scalloped apples are perfect. Likewise, Hershey’s Kisses would seem strange, while chocolate pie is perfectly acceptable.

Should one try to impress or merely satisfy? My rule is to choose something I hope will disappear before it’s time to bring the dish home – pasta, slaw, maybe a dessert in a disposable pan that I can leave without regret.

Do I want to impress or merely fill a space at the covered dish? I used to think making a big impression was the goal, except that so many fancy dishes can overwhelm like an overdone outfit. Editing improves the ensemble, and the same is true with a covered dish. That’s why something as simple as sliced tomatoes, cool cantaloupe or steamed corn can be so refreshing. A basic dish shows no pretense. Humble butter beans, I hear you.

Deviled Eggs

A dozen eggs, a few days old so shells can be removed easily

1 tablespoon mayonnaise or more to taste

1 teaspoon yellow prepared mustard or more to taste

1 teaspoon sweet pickle relish

1/4 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

1/4 teaspoon celery seed

Salt and pepper to taste

Paprika

Hardboil a dozen eggs and allow to cool thoroughly.

Remove shells and cut eggs in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks and place in a bowl. Mash the egg yolks with a dinner fork until crumbs are fine.

Add mayonnaise and mustard; adjust if mixture is too dry. Mix thoroughly.

Add relish, Old Bay seasoning, and celery seed. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Using a teaspoon carefully place the yolk mixture into each egg white. Garnish with paprika.

Makes 12 servings, two egg halves each