our double Delhi Christmas faux pas

To celebrate our first Christmas in Delhi, we invited our friends and coworkers over to enjoy as authentic an American Christmas as we could manage, given the fact that neither of us are practicing Christians, that we couldn’t purchase half the food we’d normally eat on the holidays, and that we didn’t have an oven for roasting anyway.

Christmas in an Indian market. Photo by Flickr user DanBrady.

Our menu was a mishmash of our traditions: Jewish potato latkes, hot mulled wine, ginger cookies, sweet potato casserole (technically a Thanksgiving dish, but we didn’t tell anyone), and homemade eggnog. Assembling the feast required great effort—beyond our lack of oven, we were also lacking a food processor, an electric mixer, and the assertiveness to ask Ganga to help with the labor. So the hours preceding our party were spent peeling yams for the casserole, grating onions and potatoes for the latkes, and beating cream for the eggnog.

When our second Delhi Christmas rolled around a year later, we wanted to recreate all of the fun but with none of that effort. So, rather than cook everything ourselves, we decided to make the event a “potluck”: we asked each guest to bring a dish to share with everyone else.

This request was not very well received.

Within a moment of sending my email invitation at work, some coworkers descended upon my desk to mock my backwards American practices. “Who brings food to a party?” Sonia demanded as the others nodded. “You’re supposed to have food served to you!”

And so we nearly ruined another Delhi Christmas.

You see, our first Christmas party had nearly ended as soon as it began. Having spent all that time preparing our feast, we wanted our guests to eat it while it was hot. So we’d assembled it buffet-style on our dining room table, and we’d handed out plates practically as soon as the guests arrived.

The American attendees ate. The Indian attendees refused.

“No, man,” I remember Pankaj telling me as he handed the plate back. “I’ll eat later.”

And the more we insisted they eat, the more uncomfortable they grew. The retreated into groups. They eyed us suspiciously. They whispered amongst themselves.

We didn’t know what we’d done wrong. And it wasn’t until we were guests at a few house parties ourselves that we finally figured it out.

In Delhi, we finally learned, there is generally an order to how parties progress: you drink, you  dance, and then you eat. The booze loosens you up, the dance floor bounces you around, and then, in the wee hours, the food calms you down for the ride home.

Food is the signal that that party is over.

And it’s a universally understood signal at a party. Somewhere around 2 AM, we’d hear the doorbell over the sounds of Dard-E-Disco. Delivery from the dhaba! The living room floor—which, until that moment, was being eagerly bhangra’d upon by even the most uncoordinated gora—suddenly empties.

Kebabs are imbibed. Chinese noodles are slurped up. And then goodbyes are said, handshakes are exchanged, and the ritual drunk driving begins.

Behold my uncoordinated bhangra!

American parties usually begin with food. Indian parties usually end with them. The difference creates a dramatic incongruity: at our first Christmas party, our offer for guests to eat right away was interpreted as a request that they leave.

Fortunately, that party survived the faux pas. But a year later, at our second Christmas, our cultural ignorance threatened the party before it even began. Because if serving food implies that it’s time to go home, what were we implying by asking them to bring their own signal to leave?

Once my coworkers pointed out my foolishness, I quickly sent out an email clarifying the potluck concept. And fortunately, on the day of the party, we managed to assemble quite a spread.

Still, attendance at the party was half of what we hoped. And we found out later that the timing of the meal wasn’t the only thing we’d messed up. My coworker Anurag told me of his mother’s reaction when he’d mentioned the invitation to her: “At what kind of party,” she’d demanded incredulously, “do you have to bring your own food??”

Which actually made us feel better. We could chalk up the weak attendance as a reflection of the unfamiliarity of the potluck concept—and not of our friends’ and co-workers’ actual opinion of Jenny and I.

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18 responses to “our double Delhi Christmas faux pas

  1. It’s worse than that, man. The host gets mad at you if you leave before the food comes!

  2. hysterical! There are so many things that you never think about being a faux paus, or a “I’ve never heard of that” situation! Potlucks are such a standard thing for us, eh?

  3. Hi,

    Had to delurk for this one- Not all Indian parties are like that. At formal parties, yes, food is served at the end, BUT at informal dinners-with-friends , it’s more about dinner being served at a reasonable time and then sitting around to chat after that. Also, I’m really surprised by your friends reaction to potluck, because it is a fairly common occurrence for casual occasions.

  4. LOLZ, I reacted the same when my American friends invited me for a potluck.

  5. wow – what a difference! kinda funny actually when you think about it – you trying to get them to eat and them refusing lol.

    definitely good to know though! i’m moving to delhi in the new year for 1 year and hope to make some friends and throw a party or two…will definitely keep this in mind!

  6. Order of things – agree!
    Potluck concept being so novel – surprising!

  7. wow – what a difference! kinda funny actually when you think about it – you trying to get them to eat and them refusing lol. definitely good to know though! i’m moving to delhi in the new year for 1 year and hope to make some friends and throw a party or two…will definitely keep this in mind!

  8. nice way to celebrate American style Christmas in India .. but all i see is Indians 🙂

  9. Dave,

    The Potluck concept is quite well-known in India.

    I have attended parties in our own Apartment-complex, as far back as thirty years ago, where each family arrived at the party, bringing with them the one food-dish that they were really good at making – with the result that each of the ten or so dishes at the party was simply superb. So, you’d end up having superb north-Indian dishes AND superb south-Indian dishes at the same party !

    So, it looks like your co-workers were looking for a way to wriggle out of having to contribute their one dish to your party, by feigning ignorance of the Potluck concept.

  10. Chris — so your point is that Dave is lying about people’s reaction to his party?

  11. I am quite surprised at your friend’s reaction for a potluck. It has been a practice here for years now !!!!

  12. During the party serve finger foods which will fill guests stomach and they will eat less in dinner.

  13. Have to agree with Meena and Monishikha – we’ve no strict rules about the order of proceedings at parties. And my family in Bangalore has had potlucks for as long as I can remember and probably before that – heck, my folks have had plenty of parties where people brought in their own dishes even if it wasn’t a potluck dinner per se.

    And any house party that involves drinks and dancing is generally understood to be informal, so there really shouldn’t be any reason for people to become uncomfortable at being asked to grab a bite. If anything, the dinner buffet should be set up at the table by gauging the mood and swing of the party. Just play it by ear!

  14. Potluck is a concept I discovered in the US when I was 12 and promptly fell in love with it. However, implementing it in a place like India is a lot harder… most of my ‘potluck’ parties have ended up with loooots of desserts and no solid food. Perhaps all my friends hate to cook like I do, and desserts are the easiest thing to pick up!

    A belated happy new year! Nice blog 🙂

  15. eyyy….this is wierd…i have been going to pot lucks with my parents ever since i was a smaaal kid! why did ur delhi people act surprised. potluck is pretty common all over india!

  16. hahaha…..thats quite a cultural shock you guys got. But seriously, I think your co-workers should go out more. Potluck dinners have been around some time now. And in the Army, they are organized quite frequently. Most of my family is either serving or had served in the forces. So I have seen many potluck parties. Though we don’t call them by this name. We just invite people and order them to bring a dish.

  17. I hosted a Mexican themed potluck for our Indian friends and ended up with seven bakery cakes from Safeway, I kid you not.

  18. Potluck is a very American tradition I believe. In most other countries you are expected to serve your guests. The idea is that there’s no point inviting someone to cook food for himself. It is viewed as slightly rude. It’s like inviting someone out to dinner and then expecting them to foot their own bill. The one that does the asking is expected to carry the burden of the feeding because he is the host. It’s not just an Indian thing.

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