As my dinner party guests walk through the door, I’m busy at the stove taking out the baked pasta and putting my finishing touches on the highball glasses which I’ve selected as the appropriate vessels for the libation I’ve prepared (this evening it’s a raspberry lemon cordial). My partner has spent the last half hour dutifully setting the table, going to the corner store to get ice, cutting lemons, limes, and celery, and putting up with my pre-party stress-out nagging. I’ve cleared space in the fridge for things that need to be chilled, space in the freezer for things that need to be kept on ice, and of course, space in the oven and on the stove with the removal of my own pasta contribution. One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be one bitchin’ potluck!
Then that guy comes in. You know the one I’m talking about. The guy who gets invited to the party, finds out it’s a potluck, and offers a contribution in the form of a bag of dill pickle Lays or a can of creamed corn. Meanwhile, he happily munches on your crudités with roasted onion dip (made from scratch), your girlfriend’s freshly-baked five-grain bread (which just came out of the oven), and the Cornish hens with roasted root vegetables your friend who is new to the group thought might make others like him more (let’s be honest, it does).
I freaking hate that guy! I mean, I understand a potluck isn’t exactly the epitome of high society and upper-class sensibility, but come on! A bag of 99-cent pitas and a container of no-name store-bought hummus? Dude, get your act together! I’ve witnessed such blatant avoidance of potluck etiquette enough times to know that it’s not going to stop until we take a stand and do something about it. So, to that guy who is bringing a can of frozen margarita mix to my next potluck, I offer the following to you: The Rules and Etiquette of Potluck Dining: A guide to all future events. I hope this will help you avoid making another social transgression if your friends have the patience to ever invite you to a potluck again.
Potluck Rule Number One: it’s a potluck – so you don’t have to ask the host what they want you to bring. The very origin of the potluck is the idea that everybody brings a dish that they wish to contribute. Whatever arrives is the luck of the pot! There is no need to seek guidance from the organizer. First of all, the organizer is giving you the responsibility to come up with something good on your own; and secondly, you ruin the fun by pre-planning every detail of the supposedly lucky pot. In fact, some of the best potlucks I have ever attended have been the ones where four of the six guests brought sweet-and-sour meatballs. The lucky pot will ebb and flow, and it’s a lot more fun for the guests and the host to recognize the element of chance they are inviting into their lives through participating in a potluck rather than a planned dining experience. Having said that, you do have to be careful in certain situations where the organizer possesses “control-freak” tendencies. It may be prudent to inquire as to whether they would appreciate a main, an appetizer, a dessert, or something else. But for goodness sakes, don’t make the organizer do all the work for you.
Potluck Rule Number Two: if there are two of you, you must provide two contributions! I recognize that many couples fall prey to the “we” mentality, and may suffer from a certain lack of independence. That’s fine, but if “we” are attending a potluck, then “we” are expected to bring two different contributions. Unless “we” plan on eating for one, “we” had better pick up the slack and quit relying on our single friends to feed us.
Potluck Rule Number Three: follow themes loosely. If your host has requested a “Mexican Fiesta Theme (OLE!)”, then, after you’ve gotten over the fact that you’re invariably going to be subjected to Old El Paso Tacos, figure out a way to work the theme into something you love and something that is actually tasty. A literal interpretation would involve bringing a bottle of tequila and some limes. A more thoughtful interpretation might include some grilled fish with a tequila tomatillo salsa or a spicy mango salad. But still feel free to bring along the bottle of tequila.
Potluck Rules Number Four and Five: the most important rules of the potluck have to do with what is acceptable fare. The rules are complementary and go hand-in-hand. In essence, an acceptable potluck contribution is something that you have put time and effort into making (a new recipe, an old favourite, something with fresh ingredients, etc.) or something that you have put the time and money into purchasing (a raspberry torte from that bakery down the street, an antipasti platter, the ingredients for a special cocktail, etc.). This rule is in place to ensure that every person who is respecting the lucky pot can expect equal respect from their fellow attendees. As a result, bringing canned veggie soup to your next party would be inappropriate. Making veggie soup at home using vegetables you just bought at the market and herbs you grew in your garden would be absolutely acceptable. Or alternatively, buying enough soup from a store that specializes in veggie soup, uses all organic vegetables, makes their own stocks, has secret ingredients for its renowned wares, and cooks limited batches daily, would also be appropriate. Again, the bottom line at the potluck is the value you are contributing. By providing your fellow foodies with something which took your valuable time, or which, alternatively, took your valuable money, you are illustrating the respect both your friends and the pot deserve.
The basic etiquette of the potluck is really quite straightforward. Put simply, you have to respect the pot. Copping out with lackluster contributions shows a lack of regard for your friends, the organizers, and the lucky pot itself. But when you respect the pot, and take the time and effort necessary to bring something great, I promise, the pot will always treat you right. So next time leave the bag of Oreos at home, put on your apron and whip up your famous chocolate chip cookies or Grandma’s peanut butter squares. I can guarantee that if you do, your future will be full of many lucky pots.