I grew up in a handful of church communities where potluck suppers, particularly during Lent, where de rigueur. My family would show up with casserole, a bag filled with our plates and silverware, and we'd sit down to eat. I was always intrigued by the smorgasbord on the table. How many other people brought homemade mac and cheese, I'd wonder as I scanned the table deciding what I'd want to eat. Potlucks provided an opportunity to share one of your family staples with friends, while also trying something new.
As I went through graduate school, potlucks were a strategy for hosting a dinner party without breaking the bank. Later, when I moved through my hippie phase, they were democratic social gatherings. Everyone gets to contribute, the meal was never extravagant, and there were no class barriers for we didn't know who brought the Tofurkey with all the fixings, or who brought the bag of mealey apples.
Wikipedia, for better or for worse, tells us that a potluck is a meal with no particular menu. For me, a potluck is a meal where the whims of the guest create the menu. What you eat is the amalgam of luck, desire, and individual taste. Everyone brings brownies? Awesome! Brownies for dinner. How lucky is that?
Potlucks are never planned, always a surprise.
So, for all of you people who call to ask "what can I bring?" when invited to a potluck, I offer you the Eight Commandments of Potluck Dinners:
1. Stop asking "what can I bring?" If your host or hostess wanted to tell you what to bring s/he would not have planned a potluck.
2. Take a deep breath and think about what you want to eat at the party, what meal you'd like to share or show off, and what your time, budget & energy level can handle. And then bring that.
3. Don't worry if everyone else brings the same thing you did. That's the fun of a potluck. Seriously.
4. Don't bring anything to the party that requires (a) baking, or (b) extensive preparations before it can be served. I once went to a New Year's Eve potluck where someone brought a bag of dried black eyed peas to cook. She ended spending the whole time at the stove while everyone else danced and drank. She missed most of the party and, by the time the peas were ready to eat, people were too full or had actually left the party.
5. Don't have a lot of time or a lot of cash? Who cares. Go to the grocery store, buy two Granny Smith Apples, a box of Triscuit, and an 8 oz. block of cheddar and you're done. Is that too much work? No problem. Swing by the corner store en route to the party and grab a bag of chips. You won't be the first person to do this and you won't be the last.
6. Don't bring anything that requires other ingredients. For example, if you bring margarita mix (fun!) and expect your host to have tequila, a blender and ice, you may end up bringing the loser dish of the day. The lesson here is if you bring margarita mix, also bring the tequila, the blender, and the ice.
7. Don't bring anything that requires unusual serve ware. No soup, no gallon tubs of ice cream (popsicles or Hoodsies are fine), no lobsters. Period. Expect your host/ess has plates, cups and plastic silverware and plan around that.
8. Expect that the food you bring will be served in the vessel that carried it to the party. If you want your great-aunt's silver tray back, put your name on it in a discrete place so the host/ess knows who it belongs to as s/he cleans up after the party. If you want to bring your serving vessel home with you plan accordingly.
What potluck advice would you add? Leave a note in the comment section so we can help each other develop the faith needed to believe in the miracle of potlucks.