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We sat down with Karen Finlay, one of the founders of The Mid-Century Potluck in the Bay Area of California, to talk about how one themed evening with a small group of friends has turned into a 10-year adventure of Jello-O molds, lamb cakes, and cocktail weenie towers! We’ve all seen the horrid photos of questionable Mid-Century recipes, found in magazines and thrift store cookbooks. Karen and her longtime friend, Jennye Garibaldi, are the hostesses-with-the-mostesses of this regular gathering, and have helped to bring these recipes out of the past and into the future! Admittedly, most of them belong firmly in the past, but there have been some tasty surprises over the years, and some family recipes which have inspired joy and creativity. Let’s DISH!

OLS: BIG congrats on celebrating 10 years with your Supper Club! How did you get started, and what was your inspiration?

Karen Finlay: Thank you! We can still hardly believe it! It started because of a group on Flickr called “The Mid-Century Supper Club.” People would re-create recipes and then scan the originals and post photos of their own dishes. It was so much fun, and Jennye Garibaldi, my friend and coworker at the time, suggested we take it one step further and make it into a potluck. So we invited a few people over to my house, and from there on it grew and grew — so much that we couldn’t have it at our houses anymore, and we had to start renting out a hall. A LOT of people are into Mid-Century cooking. Who knew? Ha!

OLS: What do you think the appeal is?

Karen Finlay: Well, I don’t think it’s the food, necessarily — some of it is pretty, uh, scary. But I think a lot of people like the nostalgia factor, whether it’s because they’re into a vintage lifestyle or because they remember their mom’s and grandma’s treats so fondly. I think with our crowd it’s a bit of both. A lot of us love thrifting and can’t help buying those old cookbooks with incredible photos of (inedible) food, and it gives people a chance to have some fun with it. Some go all out and make elaborate dishes, and the ones that warm my heart are the people who recreate their beloved grandmother’s “Jingle Cookies” recipe or something like that. And I have to say, it’s a terrific bunch of people, these Potluckers. I have watched many friendships form because of the Potlucks! We had some lovely new people come to the last party, and he said, “I have found my tribe.” That’s exactly what it feels like.

OLS: Food has definitely been a beautiful way to bring people together throughout history!

Karen Finlay: It does! It’s a HUGE sense of community! I feel that getting together with friends and “breaking bread,” as it were. is one of the best things in life. We may be breaking Jell-O molds and lamb cakes, but it’s definitely a community.

We’ve had crazy Aquariums made of Jell-O, light up discos with gingerbread men, TONS of astro weenie trees, cheese-balls, rice Krispie treats shaped like The Great Pyramid, cakes in all shapes and characters, questionable uses of tuna…

Karen Finlay

OLS: How many guests did you have at your 10th anniversary?

Karen Finlay: We wanted to keep our 10th anniversary small and “old school,” and just make it an easy afternoon instead of the big blowouts we’ve been having. (It takes a lot of work putting these on!) So we had about 60 people, I think, which is small for us. The past few Potlucks have been huge, over 200 people, with DJs, bands, the works! We’ll be having the 10th Anniversary bash on December 15th, 2018, but this past one was just a really sweet party.

OLS: I imagine it can be tough to maintain the sense of intimacy when an event starts to grow like this. It sounds like you have a good grip on how to retain that.

Karen Finlay: Yeah, definitely. We had to laugh when we heard someone complaining that they wouldn’t come anymore because they liked it better before it got all popular — like we were a BAND that used to play little clubs and now plays big shows. Hilarious! But it definitely has grown, and there’s a lot more work and a lot less intimacy for sure. But! What’s great is that it’s big enough that there are a lot of groups that come and get to hang out together, and it’s not so big that people get lost. People are super friendly and talk to one another, because, let’s face it — the common bond is casseroles and Jell-O, so it’s all fun. But it is a lot more work for Jennye and me (and our husbands, Aaron and Jon who don’t get enough credit), but it is a labor of love — we really do love it so much.

OLS: What are the rules for entering a dish? Do you award prizes?

Prizes at the Mid-Century Potluck Supper Club

Karen Finlay: Why, yes, yes we do! We’ve always awarded prizes just to make it fun. The judging parameters keep changing, though — at first it was small and one friend would just do it. Then it got bigger so Jennye and I took it on, but that didn’t work so well because, well, cocktails are also involved at these parties… And we’ve had “celebrity” judges like Charles Phoenix, El Vez, and the mayor of Alameda! Also, guests vote, too. We keep switching it up and trying to make it fair and efficient, which is hard and we’ve had some complaints, which is a bummer. But… We do our best!

OLS: I would imagine that the fun spirit of the club keeps competition light and entertaining…or it SHOULD, anyway!

Karen Finlay: As far as rules go, they’re pretty simple. The dish has to be Mid-Century, though we’re fairly lax — we say recipes from the 1930s – 1970s, though some people will make things up, or do things that are loosely Mid-Century, like things Charles Phoenix does. And there are different categories: Best Tasting, Best Dessert, Most Authentic, etc. so that people can enter by category.

OLS: What’s the weirdest dish ever presented?

The infamous Joan Crawford pickle appearance!

Karen Finlay: Oh, there have been some really great and weird dishes that would even make John Waters proud! We’ve had crazy Aquariums made of Jell-O, light up discos with gingerbread men, TONS of astro weenie trees, cheese-balls, rice Krispie treats shaped like The Great Pyramid, cakes in all shapes and characters, questionable uses of tuna… It has been the gamut of MC cuisine, and a lot of tweaks. Everyone is so creative, and I am always so thrilled — I shriek with joy a lot! But my favorite is “The Pickle.” One time two guests brought a newspaper clipping of Joan Crawford saying her favorite snack was a pickle and a Pepsi, and displayed it along with a pickle and a Pepsi. It was so hilarious my sides hurt from laughing. Every year they bring something “pickle” as an homage to Joan. It’s a great tradition!

OLS: That is FANTASTIC! I love the creativity that this spurs. It has probably provided a creative outlet that some people didn’t even know they had!

Karen Finlay: Exactly! Some people have said, “I don’t want to come, it’s too intimidating” and then they do and there’s no stopping them!

OLS: Let’s talk about aspic. I think most people would agree that Jello-O mold recipes have taken some pretty dark turns in the annals of Mid-Century cookbooks.

Karen Finlay: Ha ha ha ha ha! So dark! Aspic was once considered so elegant for luncheon, but now we look at those recipes of yore — olives and cauliflower in lemon Jell-O, considered “salad” — and we blanch. But it always shows up at a Potluck! I’m about to start reading a book called The Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom, a history of the family behind the company. I love reading books about the food, too.

OLS: It isn’t really surprising that savory Jello-O molds didn’t stick in our cooking repertory! Haha! Tell us about some of the best dishes over the years.

Karen Finlay: Oh, that’s so hard! I just realized that over 10 years, we have seen hundreds of dishes, and that blows my mind! We’ve had Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Goulash and Liberace’s casseroles, sandwiches shaped like dogs, cheeseballs shapes like pine cones and hedgehogs, gingerbread houses, multiple uses of hot dogs and Tater Tots, old family recipes… I can’t choose! But I can tell you that there is one I actually make often now — Jennye’s mom brought her family recipe of salpicon for an International themed Potluck, and it is absolutely delicious. I consider it a small miracle that a dish from a Potluck has made it into regular rotation at home!

OLS: It looks like you have a lot of people who dress the Mid-century part at these events. Do you suggest how people dress, or does it just happen naturally with your audience?

Karen Finlay: Dressing the part is half the fun! I think most people who come already wear vintage clothes, but a lot of people who come don’t wear vintage every day but will dress up for the occasion. We love seeing all the outfits almost as much as the food!

OLS: Tell us more about Jennye. What roles do each of you take on for the events? Do you have other assistants?

Karen (L) and Jennye (R) with a supper club guest

Karen Finlay: She is a DYNAMO! Jennye and I have been friends for many years, and used to work together, so that made it much easier to plan. It’s an equal partnership, but she’s the one who handles the tickets and money, and that’s a lot of work. (We’ve never made money, from this BTW, though we “broke even” a few times.) We both manage the Facebook page and she does the Instagram account, but we do whatever needs to be done. As far as assistants, we’ve always been lucky to have friends help out and we’re grateful, and especially our husbands who are the “unspoken” partners in all of this. And Jennye’s daughter, Lily, who has been doing this since she was practically in the womb and has grown up with this all her life, is always a huge help!

OLS: That’s wonderful that it’s become a family affair, and that your partners are so supportive! I’m sure that makes a world of difference.

Karen Finlay: HUGE! It makes it more fun, too. And I think our friends who pitch in like feeling a part of it. The cool thing I’ve seen is that the regulars who come think of it as “their” party, too — because of the nature of it, being a potluck, it’s all a group effort.

OLS: What do you see for the future of your events?

Karen Finlay: Oh, we have so many plans! We already have two more scheduled, and we have two dreams/goals: to do a book, and that someday Amy Sedaris will come! (Amy, if you’re reading this, we want you to be the guest of honor!)

OLS: Amy Sedaris is one of our IDOLS. Love huh! ❤️❤️❤️

Karen Finlay: WE LOVE HER SO MUCH IT’S CRAZY.

OLS: Could you provide any tips for our readers who might want to start a club in their own areas?

One of the spreads at a Mid-Century Potluck

Karen Finlay: Yes! We’ve had some friends in Portland who have started one there! The best advice is to find a few like-minded people, start small and let it grow. (That’s been one of the biggest delights, seeing how it’s grown!) Lay down some ground rules — whether it’s the time frame of the dishes and the time frame of the Potluck itself, and little things — are substitutions okay? Is alcohol allowed? — are important. Make sure you have enough plates and napkins and FORKS. Make sure people take their serving dishes and spoons home, otherwise you’re stuck with a bunch of stuff! Decide on whether or not you want to do a competition/prizes — you don’t have to, but it does break up the time and add a little healthy competition. (Prizes are a good excuse to go thrifting!) Take TONS of photos, and most of all, have so much fun! (And it doesn’t hurt to have Rolaids on hand…)

OLS: Or maybe you could give out packets of Alka-Seltzer as parting gifts! Haha!

Karen Finlay: That’s a GREAT idea!!!!

OLS: Thanks so much for sharing your Mid-Century Supper Club adventure with us!

Karen Finlay: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about The Potlucks! It’s pretty much my favorite subject, and one of the best things I’ve ever done — we’re so proud of it and love it so much. I hope you can come sometime — we would love to have you!

OLS: We would LOVE to come! That sounds like our kind of party 😉

by Stacie Herndon

Stacie is a writer, graphic designer, and web developer. Legend has it that she was born old. She has always loved outrageous older ladies, often befriending them over people her own age. She is a devoted Francophile, loves a good Sauvignon Blanc and can mix a mean cocktail. She will have red hair until the day she departs this earth.