From many foods, one feast

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Editor's note: In memory of the life of Jim Boushay, longtime Oak Parker whose mission was to bring people together, a final Festival of Potluck Foods his daughters decided to hold this Friday, Nov. 4 from 4-8 p.m. at the Longfellow Recreation Center, 610 S. Ridgeland in Oak Park. Everyone is asked to bring a main dish or dessert to share, along with your memories of Jim and the work he and his partner, Rickey Sain Sr., did in the community.

For those who never attended one of their 12 potluck festivals, here's how I described it in 1998:

With "potluck" you don't know what you're going to get. Life isn't a box of chocolates, it's potluck.

Which is fine because you're bound to find something you like — especially with more than 200 dishes to choose from.

That was the situation a week ago Sunday at the Andersen Rec Center, a lovely stretch of green space nestled among single family homes on Hayes Avenue just north of Division. Beneath a gorgeous spreading elm, the Fourth Annual Festival of Potluck Foods had plenty of pots (along with Tupperware, aluminum pans, wooden bowls, and platters) and more than its share of luck.

Good weather for one thing — if you like your late-summer Sundays good and warm — but luck is also something you make, the point where preparation meets opportunity, as Vince Lombardi used to say.

It takes a lot of preparation to pull this thing off, starting with Jim Boushay and Ricky Sain Sr., who birthed this notion and watched it grow to the point where it has taken over their lives.

Yet so much of the organization is informal. Boushay says over 300 people helped — ranging "from the five-minute phone call to the many hours spent on one task over several weeks," he noted during welcoming remarks. He sees this as nothing short of reaffirming "the practical value of our nation's motto, E Pluribus Unum," which Boushay amends to read, "from many foods come one feast." Again this year, he added, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

And there are plenty of parts. A table piled high with 600 plates, forks and cloth napkins awaits the potluckers on the far side of an arch of rainbow-colored balloons. The serving tables, fortunately, are located inside the rec center because of the bees and because you don't want people sweating into the casseroles.

Rose Jones, the official greeter, stands at the door. "Guess I can't have one of everything," jokes one of the feasters. "Yes you can," Jones replies, "if you hurry."

One buffet grazer observes, "The concept is too simple for many people to grasp." That concept, according to Boushay and Sain, is "good eating at the big meeting," with as much emphasis on meeting as eating. Boushay won't allow name tags. "We have to tell each other our names."

The only ID cards are attached to the foods themselves, and there is a cornucopia of choices to torment even the most experienced buffet veteran: Spicy Zucchini Stew (Vegan), Vegetarian Chile, Eggplant Appetizer, Vegetable Biryani, Artichoke Dip ("I tried it before I got in line," Amy Williams confesses), Shrimp Salad, Ma's Bayou 'Taters, Mustard Curry Chicken with Brown Rice, Smothered Pork Chops, Chicken Mole, South African Pickled Fish, and those are just the items that got people salivating. The dessert table alone features 36 items.

All of it homemade (OK, a few people cheated and went to Whole Foods). "It's like a U.N. tasting," observes Tammy Green, who keeps the serving tables from reverting to chaos. "This is so good," she enthuses. "It's like an old church supper. If more communities would do this ..."

"Where do we start?" asks one dazzled potlucker. "Where do we stop is the question," corrects his companion.

Outside, some 17 tables accommodate the feast-ivities in the shade of that old elm tree. Picnic blankets fill in the empty spaces. The crowd is remarkably integrated — old and young, black and white, gay and straight, a truly inclusive gathering. Jim Boushay's ex-wife is here. Heck, even his ex-in-laws are here.

Beth Swaggerty, the master of ceremonies, says she got involved the way everyone does. "Jim hunted me down," she says. On a small stage, a succession of musicians and singers perform, followed by "Dr. Boom," whose claim to fame, says Geoff Binns-Calvey, the perpetrator, is "blowing up food." Kids love it.

Boushay tells the assembled multitude, "You are the real heroes and heroines," but this wouldn't have happened without him and his partner. He says they're hoping to pass the torch to some consortium who can keep the event going and maintain its spirit of generosity and good will.

We wish them potluck.


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