Winter Warmth: Provincetown's Potluck Dinners Help Locals Weather the Season

By Rebecca Treon / Photography By David Cox | December 01, 2015
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Potluck Dinners

Anyone who’s survived a winter on the Cape knows that the days alternate between beauty that takes your breath away and maddening isolation. When half the town goes away at the end of summer, leaving their seasonal businesses locked and shuttered, the few locals left standing are hard-pressed to find an outlet for social activity. Several years ago, the year-rounders in Provincetown found a much-welcome respite with regular potluck dinners.

“People in this town can cook!” David Cox says with a laugh, as he describes some of Provincetown’s most memorable potlucks he’s attended over the years. When the town at the Cape’s tip shuts down for the season, a whole new social scene emerges: rather than the nonstop party Provincetown is known for, the cold of the winter months draws locals together over these shared dinners. Cox manages the events and has inherited the coordination of the potlucks, which began in 2006.

What started as a small get-together hosted on each Tuesday evening at homes around town has morphed into what can only be described as a moveable feast, with popular evenings drawing crowds of nearly a hundred. The potlucks typically start in mid-October and end with Cinco de Mayo in early May, and often have a theme. Sometimes the theme might be an approaching holiday—Fat Tuesday, maybe, or Hanukah—while other times the theme can be something like a Hawaiian Luau (everyone sporting leis) or “soup and salad”. The potlucks have a two-fold purpose—providing a nourishing homemade meal, of course, but also offering a much-welcome outing that gets people out of the house and engages their brains. Residents have a “winter week” activity calendar around town that includes open-mic night, drag bingo, potluck, and trivia night, helping to stave off boredom and isolation during a season in which few restaurants and shops stay open.

Potluck desserts

Provincetown’s overall vibe is one of inclusion, and the winter potluck is no exception. The potluck club has a website (ptownpotluck.org) and 366 people on its mailing list. Anyone is welcome, whether a long-time resident or someone in town for the week. The potlucks are hosted at the homes of those who graciously open their doors, but since so many people attending the potlucks are also owners of small businesses in town, local restaurants will often host, too. Sometimes restaurants simply add to the meal. Happy Camper, a newish donut and ice cream café in town, sent six dozen donuts to one potluck, breaking up the homemade mix of dishes. Longtime Provincetown dweller Ted Cormay says the potlucks are a wonderful way to meet people if you’re new to town, and the potlucks can be life-changing: some of his closest friends are folks he got to know by attending the weekly meet-ups.

Even potlucks must have rules, though. The potluck is not a dating service, and no pre-prepared items are allowed. “You can’t just bring a deli tray from the Stop ‘n Shop!” says Cox. Laying down these ground rules has created a tradition that people look forward to, and upping the creative ante for meal making was a welcome challenge for most residents. Often, it encourages people to dig into favorite family recipes or experiment by making something new. Even a simple theme like soup and salad produced a pantheon of different dishes, with no replication. (Of course, everyone is entitled to a week off, in which case they bring wine!)

Many attendees use the bounty of something they’ve grown or harvested locally to share with others, which makes the event extra special. Residents frequently scratch for clams off of the jetty at low tide, and include their harvest in their dish. Ted Cormay created a savory clam pie for one pie-themed potluck. Allen Gallant (who is married to coordinator David Cox) is known for his Oysters Rockefeller, and the couple also has a legendary pear tree in their yard. One year, the tree produced 550 pounds of pears, which they gave away to friends after making all the pear dishes they could stand. Allen and David also frequently forage for wild cranberries that make an appearance in their meals. (Find the recipes for Allen’s Oysters Rockefeller and Pear and Wild Cranberry Pie below.)

All told, the Provincetown Potlucks are a welcome reprieve from winter’s isolation. In a place where chronic unemployment during the off-season has driven many to abuse drugs and alcohol, the potlucks are, frankly, a social service and necessity. They’ve have created a stronger Provincetown community, a warm and welcoming tradition, and remain one of the locals’ favorite and most anticipated recurring events. Their unofficial motto couldn’t be more fitting: Eat, Drink, and be Merry; and that’s just what the potluck people do.

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