The melting pot as a metaphor for American pluralism was a step forward. For 1909.
I mean that most sincerely.
Invented by writer Israel Zangwill in a play of the same name, the term was meant to dramatize the elimination of intra-European prejudices in the great crucible of American democracy.
The main character, David Quixano, speaks of his heritage from the old world as being “hate and vengeance and blood.”
For these Europeans with their various national, ethnic, linguistic and religious rivalries —hatreds that had turned into violent conflict countless times over the past millennium —America was a safe haven. But it was only safe, the theory went, if they agreed to leave those rivalries behind and submit themselves to the American melting pot. “The great Alchemist,” Zangwill wrote in his play, “melts and fuses with his purging flame.”
The melting pot metaphor did good work in its time. We should appreciate how remarkable it is that French Catholics and German Protestants did not, generally speaking, make war against each other outside Pittsburgh the way they did outside Paris.
But the problem with the melting pot metaphor is that too often it throws the baby out with the bathwater, encouraging us to melt away not just our ugly conflicts, but also our distinctive identities. So while we can be grateful for the steps forward of those who came before us, we also need to do the work to make progress in our own time.
To that end, I believe we need a new metaphor for American pluralism. I propose a twist on the original: America as a potluck nation rather than a melting pot.
Potlucks are civic spaces that both embody and celebrate pluralism. They rely on the contributions of a diverse community. If people don’t bring an offering, the potluck doesn’t exist. If everyone brings the same thing, the potluck is boring. And what a nightmare it would be if you brought your best dish to a potluck and you were met at the door with a giant machine that melted it into the same bland goo as everybody else’s best dish. The whole point of a potluck is the diversity of dishes.
Potlucks respect diverse identities by enthusiastically welcoming the gifts of the people who gather. They facilitate relationships between people by creating a space for eating and socializing and surprise connections. And they cultivate in people the importance of not just the individual parts and the connections between them, but the health of the whole. Everybody benefits from a clean kitchen, enough dishes and silverware, and a safe and open place to eat and socialize.
And while there is no one-to-one connection between people’s ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds and the dishes they bring, it’s probably the case that a potluck with mostly South Asians is going to have a somewhat different spread than a potluck with mostly South Americans.
Ideally, you’d have both South Asians and South Americans — and people from North Africa, the Middle East, the West Indies and all sorts of points beyond and in between, bringing all sorts of dishes, everything from recipes they learned from their grandmothers to dishes they just made up.
Because, actually, the point of a potluck is not just the different identities in one place, but the connections between them. The way things click. How great is it if you bring your amazing dip, a centuries-old recipe, and someone else has brought their awesome home-baked crusty bread.
Sometimes these things are prearranged, and sometimes they just happen. The best potlucks are like that — a little bit planned, a little bit haphazard.
A potluck is sensitive to identities, but in a pragmatic rather than an ideological way. As the demographics of the group change, the dishes on the table are likely to reflect those changes. Moreover, people have to be generally aware of what the others at the gathering do and do not eat.
If there are plenty of people coming who don’t eat pork for religious reasons, you’ll probably bring a different dish. If there are people who are gluten free or don’t eat dairy, you will make sure to carefully label those items. Some of these dynamics might guide how the gathering takes shape. Maybe the gluten-free folks find themselves hanging out with one another, at least at first, because they’ve gathered around the same dishes. Zones for identity communities to thrive are positive. But barriers between identity groups are not. At a good potluck, there is plenty of free flow that facilitates people meeting one another.
A potluck is the ultimate civic form. No mayor or general or governor commands people to potluck. People do it themselves. In fact, the genius of a potluck is the perfect illustration of civil society in a democracy. It is an activity that turns what might otherwise have been a random collection of people into a community because of what they do together.
People tend to bring their best dishes to potlucks; the format encourages this. Also, you don’t look for reasons to exclude people from a potluck, or to cancel the event. In fact, you hope that the nature of the activity helps you like people you might otherwise dislike.
The late Dorothy Day spoke about the Catholic Worker movement as a space where it is easier to be good. The potluck is a space where it is easier for people to cooperate.
Potlucks are how a diverse democracy does civic life together. “Potluck nation” is the right new metaphor for our beautiful country in this young century.
Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for Deseret, the author of “We Need to Build, Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.”