A potluck meal to me brings back happy memories of a New Zealand childhood, church halls and double-tier sponge cakes brimming with strawberries, jam and cream. I loved those potlucks, as many people cooked far better than my mother, and we were allowed to eat cake! While local church members brought a plate laden with food, there was an open invitation for visitors to join in the meal. Everyone was welcome.
Learning that a potluck dinner was run on a regular basis on the Gold Coast caught my attention. While potlucks are common in religious communities and at Thanksgiving, they are rare in our society.
So, how did this potluck begin and what was the founder’s motivation, I wondered.
I spoke with Roselle Tenefrancia, the dinner’s facilitator, about the basis for her Art + Potluck Project, and what prompted her to start it.
What formed the roots of your potluck dinners?
“Good food is what connects us to the soul.“
Roselle: “Art + Potluck Project is a personal project that encourages community storytelling and sharing food at the dining table. Guests are invited via personal network to a private activity where they share space with artists, creatives and other community members at the dining table. The idea is to place all attendees on an equal footing, to make newcomers feel welcome to engage with community members over a shared meal.
In 2015, I discovered a NFP called the Welcome Dinner Project, a group founded in 2013 by Penny Elsley, which served as an initial platform to spark connection between people who were new to Australia with established community members over a potluck dinner in someone’s home or a trusted community space. But it was only in 2018 that I was officially trained as a facilitator in Brisbane, and finally organised the first Welcome Lunch on the Gold Coast at a home in Runaway Bay. I was able to organise six events over two years, until the pandemic made it difficult to hold in-person events. Things slowed down for the project, and eventually in late 2021, the board members decided to put a pause on the project altogether.
Although the announcement was sad news for the volunteers, the board gave us permission to continue the concept in our own areas. While we were not allowed to use the Welcome Dinner Project brand, database and assets, we were still able to keep the concept of holding potluck dinners as a community welcoming event.
I researched how to use the “potluck” concept in a more neutral space, rather than in a person’s home. I came across many articles where potluck dinners were held in art galleries or parks among community members, mostly in Canada. I read a thesis-turned-performance called ‘Social Potluck’ (2012), by Canadian artist Gabriel Newman, and that was my light-bulb moment.
In February 2022, I organised our first potluck event in an art gallery in Surfers Paradise, The Artists Hub, and named the initiative, Art + Potluck. Using our personal network, as well as the gallery’s network, we were able to hold an event that included a live art session with a resident artist. The feedback was very positive, and so we decided to hold it monthly in the gallery. The number of people attending has been growing steadily, with many guests coming back almost every month.”
How do Art + Potluck dinners run?
“What better way to show your love than to share your food?“
Art + Potluck events may be held in art spaces (such as galleries), public parks, or even in private homes (if there is a willing host).
Currently held on the fourth Saturday of every month in an art gallery in Surfers Paradise, the Art + Potluck Project aims to bring back the spontaneity of storytelling and social engagement at the dinner table over a shared potluck meal. A formal RSVP is requested, but there is no fee to attend. Instead, it is expected that everyone brings a plate of food to share and a story (spoken, written, visual or other forms) to share at the dining table.
For artists and creatives, the dining table becomes the stage; and for those who prefer to simply engage in conversation with other guests and share food, the event is an opportunity for community storytelling in a very casual setting. Everybody has something to share at the dining table and everyone is a storyteller in different ways.
As part of the Art + Potluck Project, audio recordings are taken during the events for documentation. It is planned that recordings will later be transcribed and shared with the dinner participants when ready, publication and broadcasting pending full consent of participants.
Where does your commitment to social enterprise come from?
“If necessity is the mother of invention, then loneliness may well be the fountainhead of leadership.” – Eboo Patel
Roselle: “I was born and raised in Manila as one of five children. Food is central to Filipino culture, and we often had ten around the dinner table, workers joining in with the family for the evening meal.
I worked as a human rights lawyer and consultant in Manila. Taking a break from the fast pace of life in Manila, I moved to Boracay Island, a tourist destination in the Philippines with an eclectic mix of Filipino and international residents. It was a welcoming community where everyone interacted and had a place.
My husband Andy and I met on Boracay. I was engaged in social enterprise human rights and environmental work. Andy and I also contributed to a community newspaper.
In 2012, after our son was born, we decided to move to Australia, Andy’s homeland, with me travelling on a partner’s visa.
Not knowing anyone in Australia, I was surprised when I didn’t feel welcome here. By 2015, we had settled into our own home and started a boat magazine, but I was still searching for connection.
Dealing with different cultures can be difficult. I didn’t want the dichotomy of being different. Instead, I decided to reach out and do something meaningful to help others in similar situations. I wanted to understand Australian society, its diversity and issues, and to give others the opportunity to experience them as well, hence my eagerness to be part of the Welcome Dinner Project back then, as a way of ‘welcoming myself’ and making sure others like me also feel welcome.”
What are the benefits of a potluck?
“The potluck is proof that food can be a cause of unity among people.“
Andy: “The concept of potluck itself makes the evening meaningful. Everyone attends on an equal basis.
It’s a bit like a blind date. You meet new people outside the cliques you usually mix with, allowing newcomers to break in. In Boracay, the community newspaper gave everyone a voice. Here, there’s a class situation and a sense of entitlement among many people. The potluck cuts through all that. It’s a non-threatening, easy environment; a way to create a food community without any sort of hierarchy or division of roles.
People are searchers. They meet other people in the search for meaningful experiences. There’s a saying: ‘If you can’t find meaning in life, you end up focusing only on hedonistic pleasures.’
It’s human nature to share, yet our food laws are set up against that.
People are invested in the potluck by bringing food. They bring food they can eat, so dietary needs are catered for.
It also brings diversity as the food comes from different cultures. By and large, the eating experience in Australia is very sterile. Homes are filled with fad diets and dietary practices, leading to a generation of kids with eating disorders.
At a potluck, food is the icebreaker. Rather than people asking sensitive (or insensitive) questions, you can talk about the food you brought, or ask questions about others’ food. There are lots of touchy subjects, but we all eat, so food is a common ground. We all choose how much to say or not to say. Dale Carnegie’s advice is to speak from your own expertise, from your own point of view. In that way, everyone can contribute.”
What has the role of facilitating Art + Potluck brought to you?
“I sent out the first invitation to the potluck to myself.“
Roselle: “Both the Welcome Dinner Project and the Art + Potluck Project have facilitated me meeting more people in my new home.
Though I am humble about our achievements, my work involving potluck events (past and present) has brought about many opportunities. Aside from growing my network, my family have contributed to a recent Queensland Music Festival audio installation, ‘City Symphony’ in Brisbane. Our conversations at the dining table were documented and were used as inspiration for poetry and music in ‘Many Cultures of Brisbane’ installed at Reddacliff Place during the Curiocity Brisbane 2022. (*SEE https://www.qmf.org.au/events/city-symphony)
On the Gold Coast, Art + Potluck will be included as an event at Bleach Festival in August, simply titled, Potluck.”
My experience of Art + Potluck
“Just bringing your fork to the potluck will make no sense.”
We followed the advice to ‘Bring an open heart and a plate of food to share with new friends’ and attended two potluck dinners before writing this article.
The first, a Rainbow Dinner For Gender Equality with Amnesty International Gold Coast, commemorated International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), celebrating LGBTQIA+ rights globally, and raised awareness of the work still needed to combat discrimination. Guest speakers formed a panel and told of their own life journey and experiences, both joyful and heartbreaking.
The second dinner asked us to bring a plate of food as well as an empty plate that we could talk about. There were hand crafted plates, plates that told of family history, unique plates, broken plates and no plates (the speaker noting that during war they had to leave all their possessions behind to save their lives). Artists and potters talked about their hand-crafted dinnerware. This open mic event highlighted the many stories behind each plate, mesmerising and thought-provoking. Like the first dinner we attended, the overlays and allusions behind what is said added meaning to the stories.
My reflections on Potluck
“My love for new dishes is a never-ending tale, it seems.“
Community around food is beautiful. I have always admired this philosophy in food cultures the world over. Community rates as a huge factor in health and longevity studies. It is not good for us to live and dine alone. We are community beings who live in a diverse society.
Potlucks bring people together because of what they do together. Yet, potlucks go beyond a community around food. They actually create a micro-community based on diversity. The potluck is a celebration of pluralism, as demonstrated by the variety of food brought to the potluck table.
No special skills are needed. Instead, contribution is welcomed to facilitate relationships and connection. The potluck is a space where it is easier for people to get along and to discuss issues that in other contexts may even polarise them.
An open heart and willingness to contribute and listen led me to a rich experience at the dinners I attended. I hope these will be the first of many potlucks I attend, as I invite others to join me.