Breaking the Rules at the Westsound Potluck ?

April 06, 2019

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

From the moment I walked into the kitchen of the Yurt, I could tell that something was wrong. Sachi moved around in a quiet sulk that told me she was crestfallen. This was not a tearful or sad kind of emotion, but a feeling of personal failure with a touch of confusion. After a brief discussion, I learned that a pan of cornbread, a favorite in our house, was showing signs of rebellion. Despite baking the normal length of time, it was not close to done, as evidenced by its liquidy center. When it comes to cooking, there is no room for failure in Sachi’s mind. It hits hard.

In isolation, a rebellious cornbread would be no cause for concern. It would be whipped into shape and eaten in due time. But the stakes for this cornbread were considerably higher.

Our neighbor, Grant, has lived on Orcas Island for 25 years and has become a sort of island guide for us. From the very first time we met him, he encouraged us to go to “the potluck” where we could meet neighbors. And we did. We’ve attended a handful and become well-versed in potluck activities on Orcas Island.

Our community is Deer Harbor and the potlucks are organized by the Deer Harbor Community Club, of which we are now members. What Grant calls a potluck is actually a community meeting with food. But I suppose all potlucks are, in one way or another.

Deer Harbor and the potlucks

This one has been gathering for decades and we learned there were some basic rules to follow. You bring a dish to share, plus your plates and utensils and a bottle (or two) of wine, if you’d like. Show up early.

Usually, the evening begins with a few words from the community club president that might include a fundraising update and news about the club’s projects, like fixing a bathroom door, or parking lot maintenance. This particular club has taken on bigger projects like purchasing and paying off the tiny building that houses the Deer Harbor Post Office. The club’s purchase in 2009 helped make the rent more affordable and prevented the USPS from closing it.

particular club

Just before the announcements end, the president asks about guests and new attendees. On our first potluck, Grant raised his hand and we all stood together to be introduced as Lee and Sachi, new part-time neighbors from Seattle. We waved, smiled and sat down. Being from Seattle isn’t remarkable, as most in attendance likely lived in the city at some point. But Seattle does bring with it a bit of baggage. I’m sure most were just happy to hear we’re not from California.

These introductions serve as a reason for community members to introduce themselves and ask what we do. For people like us who are not retired, it’s not easy to support yourself on a small and relatively expensive island. How people make it work is a constant source of discussion and speculation. We, as we tell people, own a business that operates through a website. All we need is an internet connection to manage it. They nod. It makes sense and they’ve heard it before. We are part of the new generation who has choices that weren’t possible until recently. We are those people, from Seattle.

Grant, as it turns out, also goes to the potluck of a neighboring community called West Sound and he kindly peer pressured us into going to this potluck, too. From the beginning, it felt a bit strange. This wasn’t our community or our club. Technically, anyone is welcome, but did it really feel right? We knew Grant would be a worthy ambassador and we looked forward to the evening. We would bring cornbread, a perfect potluck item.

It was this cornbread and this event that made Sachi so crestfallen. The cornbread had been in the oven 10 minutes longer than it ever had before and was still not close to done. We debated what to do as the potluck drew nearer. The edges were fine, but toothpick after toothpick showed an uncooked center. A few more minutes, we said. It was like the oven was losing temperature as the pressure grew in the kitchen.

We soon started to realize that we were facing a number of decisions with hard stops at about 5:45pm — when we had to leave to arrive on time. Do we arrive without food? Do we go at all? We paced and inspected the cornbread. We debated. The minutes ticked by with no good answers. Eventually, we cut out one piece and could see that the entire center was still uncooked. The idea of showing up at a new potluck without food seemed like a violation of potluck code and a terrible first impression to make in West Sound.

Grant texted that he had arrived and was saving our seats. It got to be 5:50 by the time we made the call. We would not attend the potluck. With that decision made, we had to tell Grant, who we knew would be disappointed. I texted him and sure enough, he insisted we come anyway. “Everything will be just fine — nobody cares”, he said.

In the end, we thought, “What the hell…” and left the Yurt just before 6pm with plates, utensils, wine, glasses and without a shared dish. We were about to break the rules.

We pulled into the gravel parking lot next door at the Orcas Island Yacht Club, which sounds a lot fancier than it is, to see the lot full. We quickly stepped out of the car and walked up the ramp to enter the building. I hoped we could slip in unnoticed.

I carefully reached for the handle and tried to open it as quietly as possible. Of course, stuck a little and rattled as I opened it, causing the entire room of thirty people to look our way. Our timing was perfect — we interrupted the community president’s announcements. Not only that, but we were new, from a different community, and arriving with plates and no food. Who shows up late to a potluck without food? People from Seattle, apparently.

We ducked our heads, and sheepishly found Grant and our saved seats just as the announcements wrapped up. On that night, the subject that engaged the club most was the potential to show the animated movie, Coco, on an upcoming Saturday evening near Halloween. The exact date and time for the showing was a source of confusion that lasted far longer than we expected. It was like watching aunts and uncles get through a disagreement over dinner. Is Saturday the 3rd or 4th? No one seemed to be sure.

After a bit of hunger-induced groaning, light heckling and introductions of new attendees, we all drank wine and enjoyed a fine meal of baked chicken, pasta salads and apple crumbles. It seemed that Grant was correct. No one seemed to notice or care that we arrived late to the potluck, from a different community, or without food to share.

In fact, in what would become a pivotal moment, the newcomer introductions shined a spotlight on a handful of attendees who were our age and new to Orcas Island as well. One of these new people, Erika, noticed that my wine glass was emblazoned with the logo of her employer, a small non-profit organization called the SeaDoc Society. We also met Tony and Zoe, who were in the process of moving from Seattle to the island. We talked for a bit, exchanged contact info and agreed to get together soon. It felt finding the start of our little community on Orcas Island.

We imagined, sometime in the future, hosting our own little newcomer potluck with a working oven, Sachi’s cornbread, and slightly less pressure.


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On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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