Journalists are a disgruntled group. They question everything. They work long, sometimes odd, hours. They get hate mail from some of the subjects they write about.
But, if there’s one day a year that my colleagues at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution actually smile, it’s at our annual holiday potluck.
The planning begins weeks in advance. There are sign-up sheets with headings like “entree,” “side dish” and “dessert.” Everyone gets a calendar invite, followed by multiple reminders. Stern motherly voices remind us to clear out our crap from the break room fridges to make way for potluck leftovers.
Come the Big Day, reporters whose beat generally keeps them away from the newsroom have a reason to visit. It’s not the time to take off for vacation or to work from home. Even retirees come back for the food fest.
This was the first year I was able to participate. My offering: cholé, a chickpea curry, paired with little rounds of fried, puffy bread called puris. Many years ago, I made this food duo for my husband to bring to his office potluck. A co-worker complimented it, remarking that it reminded him of home. Proud moment for this gal who’s never set foot on the Indian subcontinent.
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Would the same dish impress a cohort of skeptics?
I lovingly, unhurriedly made the curry the night before. It turned out beautifully, nuanced with the flavors of the spice route. The puris was pathetic. I made the bread the morning of, juggling dough-making and frying with finishing up a story and answering emails. It didn’t puff like it was supposed to. I didn’t have time to care.
“Pressure’s on,” someone had told me a couple of days earlier. Bah. Even food editors have off days.
I set my pot down in Crockpot Alley, a section of tables filled with at least a dozen crockpots and Instant Pots. But, it wasn’t just a day for the crockers. It was a day for the Betty Crockers and anyone else who wanted to strut some culinary prowess.
The AJC holiday potluck wasn’t always this way.
Story editor and event ringleader Colleen McMillar recalled the early days of the potluck, back when the AJC headquarters was still downtown on Marietta Street. There was a pizza, some chips and other unthoughtful, junky food on a dinky table. Paltry would be the word, especially when compared with the spread that lined multiple walls at this year’s hoopla.
McMillar sure has ramped things up in the past few years. Not just egging people on to bring a dish of their choice, but also “asking the Big Guy for money.” The Big Guy would be AJC Editor Kevin Riley, whom McMillar taps to approve funds for catered food that rounds out the grand affair.
Riley has his own potluck recollections. When he took the job seven years ago, he was told with a stern face that his predecessor didn’t participate in the potluck. Tsk. Tsk. He got the message, and has heeded the warning ever since with a crockpot of white bean chicken chili.
I ladled some of Kevin’s chili in a bowl and filled a plate with a couple of types of samosas, some meatballs, five-spice yam shrimp rolls, 1950s baked olive cheese balls (the name alone is enough to make me want to grab a handful), a steak roll-up with a dab of harissa, and a grilled feta slider. I passed on anything store-bought. I wanted to taste the food of my people.
I sat down at my desk and stuffed my face while gossiping about the good, bad and ugly edibles with Shane Harrison, who sits nearby and handles digital content for the Features team.
We agreed that the home cooks had won the day. “I don’t want to taste bought. I want to taste stuff you made,” he said.
Features reporter Helena Oliviero didn’t want to taste much of anything. She had a bad experience a few years ago at a potluck. Salmon was left to sit out for hours. That sent some folks to the hospital to be treated for food poisoning. Someone needed an IV. What she touched at this year’s party came from Crockpot Alley — because it was kept at a safe temperature. That, and some pie. (Is there an episode from “The Office” about this?)
We talked about the many ways that one could spin a potluck story. “The dishes are so international,” said Helena, who is all heart and soul. “And, there are all these personal stories to them.”
But, it was hard to get sappy or serious when funny man George Mathis strutted past us, proclaiming, “This fourth plate is gonna kill me!” as he rubbed his belly.
Someone give me a drink.
It was only 1 p.m., but there was, indeed, a bar.
The bar was commanded by reporter Rosalind Bentley, with Cobb County reporter Ben Brasch handling barback duties. Roz had devised her own menu of three virgin drinks garnished with fruit-threaded toothpicks and served in fancy plastic champagne flutes. Mocktails were her thing at last year’s potluck, too, but she called this round “bigger and better.”
Nothing like a mocktail bar to make the wordsmiths go wild.
What made me go wild? The Christmas present — a bottle of Old Fourth Distillery gin — that retired AJC story editor Bill King left on my desk. I only wish I’d have spiked Roz Bentley’s guava mocktail with it right there and then.
Cheers, and happy holidays to you and your quirky office mates.