The first few times I bounced around the idea of a potluck wedding, I was bemoaned with cries of: “Oh, jeez, that is so tacky.” Or: “If people are coming all that way, the least you could do is feed them.”
I come from a family of financial prudence. My mother has always been good at squirreling money into untouchable corners. My dad’s idea of retail therapy is going to Costco. So in my early 20s, I thought that a potluck wedding would have been met with practical parental approval, but even they wrinkled their noses. “If you are worried about it, Gretchen, we will help pay for a wedding when the time comes,” they said at the time.
Since first coming up with that idea, I have had a lot more experience with weddings. I have worked as a wedding server for more than 50 couples’ special days. I have been a member of the wedding party for three friends, and I have had to, for one reason or another, turn down invitations for seven and attended a few more.
I now have a strange admiration for the whole thing. I love it when funky old buildings doomed for demolition are rescued and resurrected as wedding venues. I cheer because the wedding industry is a corner of the economy where it’s the norm to see women in leadership positions, and weddings create a space for artists of all shapes and sizes to monetize their crafts. Musicians, dancers, calligraphers, chefs and photographers can not only get paid for their work at a wedding; they can get paid well. And as a writer myself, the hours and flexibility of serving weddings have left time for me to write and teach.
Even I, a no-frills girl, have gone gaga over a gorgeous wedding with delicious food. Still, the old desire, now almost a decade in the making, stands. If I ever get married, I want a potluck wedding, in a big park, in a $100 dress.
I could argue here that it is a choice based around money and the size of my family. My father is the oldest of nine, my mother the second of four. So if I invited just my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and their adult children, it comes out to 47 people on my side alone. What about the family of the person I am marrying? Yes, these are all valid concerns, but they are also just coverups. The real reason is that I really just want a potluck wedding.
I want the drawn-out drama of who gets an invitation and who doesn’t to be as minimal as possible. Instead, I want people from the different nooks and crannies of my crazy life to crash up against each other and swirl together like frothy waves during a good day at the beach. I smile thinking about my equestrian friends hanging out with my writer friends, who will then swap memories with my childhood buddies and co-workers. I smile when I imagine my old Girl Scout leader meeting the people whose horse farm I used to work on. Then my family mingles with all of the above, while my little cousins and my friends’ kids run between the camp chairs. I also daydream about meeting the people who saw my partner, whoever he may be, in all his selves, both current and long gone.
I also dream of a potluck wedding because so much of a family’s identity can be found in food. I want to savor the foods of the person whose family I have entered, and I want him to taste some of mine. My mouth waters at the thought of my uncle’s ribs, with sides of my mom’s cheesy potatoes and my aunt’s ceviche. Then I want to finish the night with my grandmother’s jelly-filled cookies, which she only makes for baptisms and other special days.
After working dozens of them, I have learned that every wedding, no matter how perfectly or haphazardly planned, is an event where the tectonics of culture, family, class, religion and race all rub up against one another in ways both good and bad. There will always be someone who doesn’t like something, and worrying about that person is simply a waste of time. I have also learned that the best weddings are those where the couple embrace their unique bit of beauty among the noise of it all.
It takes courage to stand up to the expectations of those we care about and actually do what we want. It takes vulnerability to be true to ourselves, especially when everyone we know is watching. In my little life with all of its mess and failure, success and magic, I have never regretted being myself, even when doing so made my heart pound. I hope the same applies to weddings. If you and the person you love want a plated dinner in a high-rise, go for it. If you want a family-style dinner passed around a backyard filled with hydrangeas, make it happen. If you want to sing your vows to each other in pirate costumes, that sounds like magic. As long as it is yours, nothing else matters. Even if you are the one picking up trash in your dress after everyone goes home.