Potluck Etiquette

Holiday time means party time and party time often means potluck. Personally, I am not a fan, but still, I am here to offer a few guidelines for minding your potluck p’s and q’s. These suggested rules may be more applicable to “the work potluck” or the potluck where nobody is really friends but somehow feels forced to eat together.

My personal mantra is “Friends don’t make friends eat potluck.” Because, well, even the name is kind of scary.

1) Rude or FOOD? Before designating your party a potluck, it is a good idea to see if this type of menu is actually suitable for the function. While much of the population is pro-potluck, there are some people who’s culture emphasizes hospitality and serving the guest. If this is the case for some of your attendees, they may actually be put off by the idea of a potluck. Also, in today’s era of food allergies and ethical and religious dietary considerations, potluck may be a tricky course of food action in the face of food handicaps and cultural diversity. Then again, such a spread does ensure that each person in attendance has something to eat: their own prep.
2) What the heck is that, anyway? Not all potlucks are amongst friends. Office parties are often prone to potlucks. It is nice etiquette to include alongside your prep an index card indicating what the dish is and what ingredients are in it. This will save you having to repeat over and over again, “No, there is no dairy in the salad dressing.” If the dish is totally foreign to you or grosses you out by sight, smell or taste, it is good etiquette not to be like, “Yuck, what the hell is that slop?” That could really hurt someone’s feelings.
3) Cook for 10. This is a confusing point about potlucks. If 20 people are invited to a function and they each bring a dish that will feed 20, chances are there will be lots of leftovers. Ask any West Philly lesbian and she will tell you that potluck means bring enough to feed 10. There does not have to be enough for everyone (which is something your guests may not be happy with, but hey, nobody forced you to have a potluck). And in this way, guests can focus on bringing a really nice dish, perhaps something that is green and not a simple carb. It just might happen!
4) Be ready-to-serve. Whatever you bring to the potluck, make sure it is ready to go. You should not need to heat stuff up upon arrival or do much by way of assembly. It is also nice if you bring your own serving utensil so that the hostess is not sent scrambling to the kitchen last minute.
5) Be clean. When cooking for others, don’t let your dog lick the ladle or your kid sneeze into the pot. Be mindful of the fact that cooking is an act of love and that the consciousness in which you cook, as well as the environment in which the food is prepared, will effect the physical and psychological health of the people eating it.
6) Be on time! Potlucks depend on guests arriving *with their dish* in a timely fashion. No one can eat if the food is not there and your contribution does count. If you tend to run late, bring dessert. But even then, don’t show up at a ridiculous hour. It’s just plain rude.
7) Don’t be a pig! As with any party where eating is involved, there are often ample leftovers involved. This does not mean you should bring your tupperware with you and pile up a container to take home so that you do not have to cook for the week. No. That is just low class. If you are invited by the host or the maker of the leftovers to take stuff home, by all means do. But even then, demonstrate some restraint. Just as you did not over do it on firsts when in the buffet line, you should make sure there is enough leftovers for everyone else interested. The common potluck etiquette is that people take home whatever they prepared unless they invite the guests to have a share of the leftovers.
8) Chips? You dip! While it is true that not everyone considers themselves a cook, it is also true that some potluck sub-cultures do not consider a jar of pickles or six packs of soda a bona-fide participatory item to set on the table. While some people may welcome your tub of chocolate covered Bavarian pretzels from Sam’s Club, other sects may prefer food which involved a little more of your heart and soul. You really have to feel out the situation. If you do not cook and refuse to try just because you were invited to a potluck, ask the hostess if you may bring the plates and cups or check out the vibe you get when you offer to bring the chips and sour cream. It may be okay. Otherwise, consider bringing a platter of raw veggies, fruit salad or cheese and grapes. Potlucks often lack something green.
9) Be a host, not a parasite. By throwing a potluck party, that does not mean you are off the hook food-wise. The host should not rely on the guests to cater the party. These preparations should add fun and life to the event, and not be too much of a stress on the guests. As the host, you need to make sure that even if everything else sucks (pardon the expression), there will be ample good stuff for your guests to eat. You should have at least a main dish prepared in abundance for everyone in attendance.
10) Be realistic. Depending on the crowd you run with, your guests may not have enough moolah to cook something decent for 10 *and* get you that new Barry Manilow eight track you’ve been coveting. If your potluck event is the kind of party where gifts are exchanged, you may want to forego the assumed gift giving requirement. There is a recession going on. Families, college students and plain old po’ folk may not have the funds to do both. Especially if they have a busy social schedule just overflowing with potlucks! As the hostess, it is a nice gesture to either let guests know they do not need to bring a gift or in exchange for your guests’ generosity, hit them with a sweet party favor. As the potluck attendee, make sure you do not feel as though your wallet has been violated; nothing ruins the party spirit more than a disgruntled guest.
I am sure many of you have some more good advice to throw out here and I encourage you to please share in the comments section. I have to admit, I am the anti-potluck. I just don’t find it enjoyable for many many reasons. And at this point in my life, I can’t guarantee that my contribution to the composite meal is worth my attendance, but I surely hope that the most important thing about my showing up is my smiling face.

1 Comment

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One response to “Potluck Etiquette

  1. Gopal Nandini aka ginger

    My husband thinks since you’re not cooking for your business anymore, you should write a food or food advice column. This post is exactly what I would envision in the subjimata column in the paper. Seriously, you ought to check it out. You know, a lot of people get paid to blog. And you do it sooooo well!! Oh, and you’re smiling face is welcome at my potluck anytime. Even if you don’t bring your pot;-)

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