Though I live a fairly — ok, thoroughly — domestic life, I spend a lot of time as a guest or host. I have my weekly writer’s group; I have a monthly book group; I have a group of friends-with-kids who host raucous parties to which all of our children are invited; I have a diverse circle of circles (women on bikes, people who can food, urban chicken keepers, lit types) who are forever “networking” and “creating community.” I’d have to get another job if it weren’t for the potluck.
Potluck: the high life at a low cost
Like many people, I knew the potluck first as the province of church ladies and predictable Sunday lunches. As kids, we would always look for the plate of frosted brownies, the fruit salad with the marshmallows in it, the big spender who brought KFC. After college we wanted to be fancy and called it “Supper Club”; themed dinners with a rotating host, everyone brings a Spanish dish or a cocktail and an hors d’oeuvre.
But even we young bankers making young money could afford that a lot more easily than another night out at a restaurant, then afterward a bar, and we embraced it without acknowledging its frugality.
Now that I live in Portland, “potluck” is shorthand for, “we live in a creative class and not everyone is making money.” It’s a way to invite the friends who work for Intel and also the friends who are poets or bike mechanics and make sure everyone is comfortable. Some people bring the squash coconut curry; some people bring bacon apple pie; others bring expensive cava, or the $3.99 cabernet blend from Trader Joe’s.
Potluck relieves the angst
What’s missing? The arguing over picking up tabs, the nervous calculations, the “oh can I borrow a few bucks, I’m short, ” the feeling bad because someone who likes wine and pork chops only orders a glass of water and a cup of soup. Every group dinner out, it seems, is wrapped up with angst over money (even — or especially — if it’s never said out loud). Every group potluck, it seems, is only fun. Those who don’t cook bring takeout from the grocery store deli or wine and no one minds.
I’ve also haggled for what seems like hours over a good destination for a group of people; these days, it’s allergies and sensitivies and vegans; back in my early 20s, it was people who didn’t like ethnic cuisines or had eaten there for lunch every day this week. Potluck, you bring what you want to eat, and if you find other goodies you can stomach: what luck!
It’s perfect for occasions like Super Bowl parties or tailgating, too; the focus can be on the game instead of whether you’ve cooked enough sausages.
Potluck means everyone (often) is invited
My next-youngest sister had a potluck wedding, and so everyone came; little children of every friend and relative, colleagues, fellow churchgoers. The only per-person cost was cake, and my youngest sister and I made that. No one worried about how many people showed up, except the one unfolding chairs for the dinner afterward.
Even for a less momentous occasion, a potluck means no hard feelings about, “oh, can I bring my friend who’s visiting? My three little boys?” — the expectation is, they’ll bring respectively larger quantities of food.
Some rules for a lucky potluck
Convinced? Well, make sure you do it right. Here are some basic guidelines to make sure your potluck is successful:
- The host provides the cups, plates, and utensils (serving utensils, too). Too many times I’ve gathered with friends at a potluck picnic, only to realize no one brought serving utensils and there are only enough plates and cups for 2/3 of the crowd. Now I always bring my own plates and a couple of extra serving utensils; you could also ask someone to bring those, specifically. Lots of kitchen-goods co-ops, churches, or party rental businesses will let you borrow or rent for an especially fancy party.
- Be sure your bases are covered. Some of my friends just seem to have a knack for the potluck, always bringing the right things. Others are hit-or-miss; I’ve been to more than one event where either everyone brought wine; or everyone brought chocolate. You could ask people to sign up for different dishes, or you could just be ready with some backups (drinks, cheese, and crackers) in case some category is low.
- Choose a theme. I love a themed potluck; the host can announce a concept and provide the “base” (say, tortillas and a few fillings for a build-a-burrito party, or pre-made crusts for a pizza party) and everyone brings their favorite accompaniments.
- Have plenty of chairs. If you’re hosting, count your chairs! People can go without a table for a potluck, but not without a seat. You can ask neighbors or guests to bring seats, if you haven’t got enough.
- Don’t skimp on the drinks. If you’re hosting a party for families, you might not need alcohol, but you’ll still want something festive. Sparkling cider or fancy herbal tea is always a big hit in my crowd. One friend always gets a keg of beer for holidays and other festivities. Or you can ask everyone to bring a bottle of wine. Whatever it is, just don’t forget; the convenience store wine just isn’t the same.