What are your ethical responsibilities at a potluck
What are your ethical responsibilities at a potluck? (Illustration: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

What Are Your Ethical Responsibilities at a Potluck?

Outside’s ethics guru weighs in

What are your ethical responsibilities at a potluck?
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Dear reader, this month I solicited a question from Mikaela Osler, a triple crown thru-hiker who holds the fastest known times on the Colorado Trail and Vermont’s Long Trail. We DMed on Facebook. 

Sundog: Hey, do you have an ethics question you’d like answered?
Osler: Ummm, OK, so here’s a situation my boyfriend Troy and I ran into recently: we went on a group camping trip where everyone brought their own gear, and we went extremely ultralight, because we hate fun, and just brought tortillas and cheese for dinner, etc. The rest of the group brought, like, stuffed peppers to cook on the campfire and homemade marshmallows for s’mores and all sorts of fancy stuff. And they ended up sharing with us, but I felt bad, like I made them carry a bunch of weight for us. I can see how it would be a more clear-cut situation if we’d known in advance that they were going ultra heavy and we decided to mooch, but we were taken by surprise and weren’t really sure about backpacking etiquette. 

You mean they carried your weight just in that you ate their food?
Yes. 

This is indeed a good situation. Is there a question? I don’t answer statements!
Am I an ultralight asshole? Or maybe: Should I have taken the food? I don’t know, I guess it seems silly not to since they were offering. 

Why did you feel bad? It sounds awesome, someone bringing marshmallows.
Well it was awesome, but I felt silly for misreading the room, I think. Perhaps there was not an ethical problem so much as a setting-expectations problem. 

You were like: Here are some people who are going to love tortillas. Did you bring beans?
No beans. Troy only ate cold ramen. 

Jeez you do hate fun.
I think there may have been powdered hummus. None of our food was the kind people are excited to share.

Did you think they resented you for freeloading? Or being cheap? Funless?
No! They were so nice! I was just embarrassed.

Are you still friends with them?
We’re friends with the guy who invited us. The other people we didn’t know and we never leveled up past acquaintances. But also, this was right at the start of the pandemic, so I think a lot of friendships failed to level up. 

I once skied into the Ostrander hut in Yosemite’s backcountry with, like, two quarts of lobster bisque and a bottle of wine.
Dang. 

So if you went with them again, would you bring better food?
Well, depending on the trip. If it was short, sure. At least beans. 

Let’s say it would be the same trip, for the sake of establishing a control group.
Yes, much better food. 

Be specific.
A stove! And some of that pad Thai in a box from the grocery store. And something to share. 

OK, sorry, that’s just ramen.
This??? 

pad thai cold noodles
(Photo: Courtesy A Taste of Thai)

So much better than ramen! 

I guess the peanut thing is a bit more filling, but i’d still call this ramen. I think the ethics question is: Was it right to eat their food? And I think that’s pretty clearly yes. I mean, it would have been rude and awkward to be all, ‘No I’ll just sprinkle this hummus powder on these hard noodles.’ But clearly doing the ethical thing has left you unsettled.
I agree with your ethical assessment.

It has rice noodles. You have to boil them. 

Lead Illustration: Liam Eisenberg

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