A Good Start: Mayor Heidi Harmon and the Power of Potlucks
A mismatched pile of plates and utensil-filled Mason jars sit on the long table stretching through San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon’s front room, its otherwise bare surface a stark contrast to the eclectic art and quirky curios spilling across the walls and nooks of her downtown Victorian home.
Before long, the table fills up as guests arrive with dishes in hand, setting a tray of brownies next to applesauce made from backyard trees, grabbing a trivet for a hot casserole, pushing aside a quinoa salad to make space for a huge pizza box.
Some guests stream out back to the fairy-tale garden where a couple cocktails, bottles of wine and a table full of glasses await. Others gather around the table surveying the spread or seeking a serving spoon, a bowl or a knife to cut some bread. “It’s chaos,” Harmon exclaims with a smile as she fulfills the latest request, quickly adding, “This is the kind of chaos I can handle.”
Harmon began holding these open-house potlucks last fall following the divisive presidential election and her own razor-thin mayoral win as a way to build unity and community. “I didn’t know what to do exactly, but I knew that bringing people together would be a good start,” Harmon says.
She also knew that simply sharing a meal is a powerful way to build connection, but while Harmon has many creative talents, cooking is not one of them. “I’d love to have a hundred people over and cook for them if I had that skillset but I just don’t,” she says a little sheepishly.
Not wanting to let that get in the way, she turned to the time-honored communal potluck, spreading the word through social media and hosting as many as a hundred people each month. “It’s an opportunity to share, and I think we don’t do enough of that,” she says. The table ends up being super random and sometimes weird, Harmon admits. But to her, a perfect meal is the not the goal. “The food provides the basic level of met needs and comfort and sharing that hopefully allows a bigger conversation and connection between people,” she says.
Sometimes, a dish can even provide a peek into the person who brought it—an earthy sensibility, an odd streak or sense of comfort. Her own contribution: chicken wings brushed with olive oil and garlic salt then broiled to a golden crisp. “They’re simple, handheld, delicious and everyone loves them,” she says.
The wings disappear quickly, as do a few other crowd favorites, but new dishes seem to appear just as fast throughout the informal gathering.
Guests young and old from various walks of life—some who’ve known Harmon for years and some who know only her campaign posters—stream in and out. A few stop in for a plate and quick chat, others stay late into the evening.
Plates overflowing with a hodgepodge of food, some folks head out to the front porch where they wave at neighbors passing by and enjoy the last of the waning sunlight. One group snags seats on the couch inside and set up shop, comparing notes on their selections.
Get the Slippery Slope Cocktail Recipe from the issue at the end of this article.
Some never stray far from the table, examining each new dish that comes in, tasting a bit of this and a bite of that and asking the creators for preparation tips.
Conversations spark up around the food—“What’s that in the green bowl over there?” and “You’ve got to try that chocolate torte”—but quickly move into other, more personal topics.
Neighbors catch up while strangers share what brought them here. Regulars introduce newcomers around, and Harmon spares a few minutes for everyone who shows up.
Politics don’t factor in most conversations but community does. Mention of a nature art project leads to a potential collaboration with an outdoor education group. A former chef shares how a new high school cooking program is changing some students’ outlook on school.
And nearly everyone chatters about expanding the potlucks, with little clusters discussing various ideas to bring people together over food. What if people all around the county opened their homes for a neighborhood potluck on the same night? What if instead of the next march or vigil, we all gathered for a communal meal instead?
What if we made one long table stretching down Higuera Street and invited the whole community—something Harmon and her potluck converts say they’ve actually explored.
What if, they imagine, we could build a better world just by building a bigger table?
Larry Brooks, a winemaker and Harmon’s husband, named this take on the classic cocktail, Corpse Reviver #2, for how easy it goes down. He leaves out the traditional gin and absinthe to keep it light and not interfere with the citrus flavor.
Makes 1 cocktail
1 part Lillet Blanc
1 part lemon or lime juice
1 part Cointreau
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake vigorously for about 30 seconds.
Strain into glass and serve with garnish if desired.