On a drizzly Friday afternoon, an overcast sky casts a grey pallor and a looming sense of dreariness. But in a quiet Shah Alam neighbourhood, this tableau of gloom is pierced by the strains of a particularly raucous rendition of Teresa Teng’s classic Tian Mi Mi wafting out of the confines of one of the houses.
In that home, doors have been thrown open, revealing a lush, verdant garden outside. Inside, a long table heaves with food like sandwiches, mini tarts, chocolate cakes, chicken pies, cheese and fruit platters and kerabu meehoon.
A high tea has been planned and the women (and some men) in attendance are dressed for the occasion, all immaculately garbed in their host’s requested floral/pink dress code. The friends are at ease with each other, taking pictures at every opportunity, laughing at the slightest inclination and helping out without being asked.
At the centre of all this activity is 67-year-old May Goh, a petite woman who reaches out to welcome me. “I’m so happy you’re here,” she says, a smile etched on her gentle face, and I can tell immediately that she means it. I have met many people in the course of my job, but none quite like Goh, a pure-hearted soul who radiates warmth, kindness and goodness.
So it is no surprise to learn that Goh is also the heart and soul behind her group’s regular themed potluck sessions.
It all began five years ago when Goh, a retired school principal and talented home cook began receiving recipe requests from her many friends. “I love cooking a lot. And I have friends with common interests and they asked me to share my recipes. I thought it’s so difficult to just send my recipes. So I got this idea of starting a group after my daughter and son-in-law suggested that it would be a better way to interact with friends,” she says.
So Goh started a by-invitation only group on Facebook called Our Shared Passions (OSP), inviting over 500 of her friends to join. The group has now swelled to include close to 1,000 people, largely Goh’s friends and friends of her friends.
According to Goh, the group’s demographic is very diverse and includes retirees, mums, students and young working adults.
Amy Yeung, for instance, is a member who has known Goh since she was a child, as Goh was once her Sunday school teacher! Ruby Thoo, meanwhile, is a retired teacher and former colleague of Goh’s who reconnected with her after 30 years, while the bubbly Shirley Chan got to know Goh through line dancing classes. Although the members come from different backgrounds, they all seem to get along extremely well.
“The first time you come for a potluck, it’s like ‘Wow, I don’t know anybody,’ but somehow everyone just gets along. It’s a very positive group,” says Chan.
As its name suggests, the group discusses and exchanges information about many of their mutual shared passions, like gardening, dancing and crafting. But inevitably, the subject of cooking and food comes up very often, which is also how the idea of having regular potlucks came about.
It’s very fun, because I love to bring people together,” says Goh. The group’s major potlucks happen once a month (also to celebrate members’ birthdays), with smaller gatherings occcuring once a fortnight. Very often, the potlucks are themed – to date, Goh has had potlucks themed around Vietnamese food, Hong Kong Chinese food and Nyonya food, among many others.
The one I attended was themed “Grazing Food”, indicative of the bite-sized portions traditionally eaten for high teas.
“I love to do things that are interesting so I came up with this themed potluck idea. I shared it with my group and they love it,” says Goh, who also admits that she comes up with her themes by “thinking and dreaming a lot”.
There are no fixed rules for the potlucks, only that people contribute something (or share the cost of a meal prepared by someone else if they cannot bring something themselves) and abide by the food theme and dress code set – all in the name of fun, of course.
As many of the women in the group are incredibly good home cooks, the potlucks also offer an opportunity for everyone to sample each other’s food and ask for recipes afterwards. Goh, for instance, has contributed meals like kerabu meehoon, nasi kerabu, assam prawns and Vietnamese spring rolls, to name a few.
“When I make something like Vietnamese spring rolls, I will demonstrate how to make the rolls, then the members practise and do it themselves and they’re very happy with their achievements,” she says.
Thoo says the potlucks often even lead to cooking demonstrations organised at a later date (which invariably involve another eating session).
“When we come for the potlucks and taste things we like, we’ll ask for the recipe first, then if possible, ask to do a demo, which May normally organises in a smaller group,” she says.
Although the potlucks sound wonderful in theory, it must be mind-boggling to coordinate the various food items that people bring at each event as well as keep track of how many people are coming in the first place. Especially as Goh says the monthly potlucks often attract 50 to 70 people and sometimes even up to 100!
“For me, I’ve been doing it for so many years – it comes quite easily for me. And we have it in different homes, so if it’s a bigger home, I will extend the invitation to more people. But if it is in my home, it will be a selected few because my house is a bit cramped,” says Goh.
During the potluck sessions, members get to try each others food, like this delicious kerabu meehoon from Goh. Often this leads to recipe exchanges and sometimes demonstrations are arranged at a later date.Other members say the main reason the potlucks are so successful is because Goh is such a skilled organiser. “For outsiders, you will see this takes a lot of work but May is an excellent organiser so everything is so easy. Once she has set a particular theme, everyone knows what to do already,” says member Erine Wong.
When you attend one of the group’s potlucks, you’ll immediately find yourself immersed in a wonderful bubble of positivity. I had people telling me they loved my hair, nose and figure seconds after I walked into the house! It is telling of the fact that Goh and her husband Peter (who is just as warm as she is) seem to attract people as nice as them into their group. “Both of them are so lovely, they are loved, admired and respected by many,” agrees Wong.
So there are no sour grapes, quibbles or awkward moments with the friends (some of whom have only met each other recently). As they exchange recipes, arrange food on the table and eat to their heart’s content, it’s hard to dispel the notion that this is what truly happy people look like.
And just when you think nothing can top this experience, all the ladies move towards the kitchen – although there is no official signal of any sort – and begin the process of cleaning up so that their host will not have to go through that trouble herself. A line is formed in the kitchen and the women alternate between washing dishes, emptying leftover food into containers for everyone to take home and tossing the detritus of the meals into the trash can.
“It’s very fast, everyone heads to the kitchen, no need to ask wan! It’s not like after the event, everybody leaves – no! Everyone cleans up after the event – we don’t wait for the host to clean up,” says Thoo.
Ultimately, all the members agree that OSP and by extension, the potlucks have created deep friendships between members of the group.
“One of the key elements is that we are forging friendships. We uplift and support each other and the food brings everyone together,” says Wong.
For Goh though, there is a different sense of pleasure in hosting and organising these regular potlucks, one that has proved so addictive that she cannot help but look forward to the next one.
“The potlucks make me very, very happy. It gives that kind of lingering joy after the event is over. You feel tired but you also experience such an overwhelming joy that you would love to do it again and again,” she says, smiling.