What Would Seinfeld Say About Potluck Dinners?

I can imagine an entire "Seinfeld" episode focused on potlucks, yet, strangely, the show never addressed this topic, one of the only aspects of American culture it left uncovered. Nonetheless, "Seinfeld" had a lot to say about gift-giving, so it's a perfect resource to help us understand the bizarre American custom known as the potluck dinner.

Jerry Seinfeld, making the mistake of accepting an astronaut pen from his parents' friend ("The Pen," Season 3).

We need Jerry's help because the potluck presents a genuine anthropological riddle. You may be surprised to learn that many newcomers to the United States experience a sudden intimation of American cold-heartedness when they attend their first potluck dinner. That’s right: some people see the potluck as cold-hearted.

This reaction is hard for Americans to understand, since we usually see the potluck as not only harmless, but downright lovely, an example of community at its best. We have to ask ourselves, How could anyone resist a potluck? What would Seinfeld say?

Potluck Dinner, Flckr Mackarus

The answer is found in the way Jerry consistently messes up gift-giving because he doesn't want to get too committed to relationships with other people. For example, when he was dating Elaine, he didn't want to get her anything too "relationshipy" (his word) for her birthday, so he gave her 182 dollars in cash:

Elaine: You got me cash?!
Jerry: Well, this way I figured you can go out and get whatever you want. No good?

Elaine opening birthday box with $182, in "The Deal," Season 2.

Obviously his gift was not good. Shortly afterward, he and Elaine broke up.

Then there was the time Jerry got annoyed because he couldn't get rid of the comedian Kenny, who had given him an Armani suit. Jerry tried to take Kenny out to lunch, to pay off the debt and end the relationship, but Kenny wanted to stay friends, so he would show up at the restaurant, say he wasn't that hungry, just order soup or a sandwich, then say this didn't count as a meal and they should go out again later.  After a couple of these meals that "don't count" (according to Kenny), Jerry gets fed up and says, "You’ve had a sandwich and two bowls of soup. And that's it. Goodbye."

Kenny, in "The Soup" episode, Season 6.
Now here's the connection to the potluck. From non-American cultural perspectives, the potluck seems to say what Jerry said to Kenny: "You’ve had a sandwich and two bowls of soup. And that's it. Goodbye."

In other words, the potluck orchestrates gift giving so that everyone is perfectly paid up at the end of the day, making them free to end the relationship. Everybody has contributed equally, so nobody is left in anybody else’s debt. The ledgers are perfectly balanced and clear. Like Jerry after he gives Kenny the sandwich and two bowls of soup, we’re free agents once the potluck is over.

At least it seems that way when you compare the potluck with food customs, found in many other cultures of the world,  in which I host you for a large meal (even if there are twenty three of “you”), and then you do the same for me many months or years later. The potluck removes this hosting and time dimension in “delayed reciprocity,” thereby reducing the commitment to a long-term relationship. When you’re in someone’s debt, you know you’ll see each other at least once more, when the initial gift gets repaid, and you maintain your relationship in the interim. After a potluck, by contrast, we can all leave without reciprocal obligations holding us together.

Of course this is not the way Americans like to think of the potluck. To the contrary, we see potlucks as a great community event, one designed to enhance social relationships and overcome isolation, yet without letting the burden of all the cooking fall on a single host.

Potluck, anyone?

This is a condensed and revised version of an essay that David Sutton and I wrote a couple years ago,
"Seinfeld, Potluck Dinners, and Problematic Gifts," Popular Anthropology Magazine1(1):8-10, March 2010. That essay can be found here.


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