Potlucking Like It’s Your Job

My friends and I have a lot of potlucks. We haven’t had as many recently, but last summer, we had them weekly on Friday nights, and I thought it was a great way to hang out. It’s cheaper than going to a restaurant, exposes you to interesting creations, and hopefully gives you something to be proud of. Having done a few, I have a few suggestions for potlucks, both in planning and cooking.

In terms of planning, I think the most important thing is to have a theme. This might range from something conventional, such as “Chinese food” to something quirky, such as “food that looks like other food.” Great potlucks often involve a lot of discovery, and constraints often generate very creative results. Otherwise, potluckers may fall back onto their tried-and-true recipes and not take advantage of the opportunity to explore their next big dish.

Second, it helps to either assign or publicize choices for courses. Horror stories of potlucks usually involve little diversity in food, and unless you were planning a lasagna cook-off, you might get tired of lasagna by your 4th serving. My friends and I used a Google Spreadsheet, where we could record location, time, theme, attendance, and dishes in advance to help out with organization. Other than the token amount of trolling that must come with the internet, it worked well to keep the meals diverse.

Once the logistics are out of the way, you can focus on your personal contribution to the meal. Although you might be shooting for creating the perfect meal, potlucks have unusual constraints that make some meal choices better or worse than other. Specifically, you want to serve food to many people after carrying it to the desired location. Depending on your choice of dishes, these constraints may be detrimental.

First, you need to be able to feed everyone who attends. You might have a great recipe for creme brulee, but when you only have 6 ramekins, you might end up a little short. On the other hand, remember that everyone will be bringing food, so you actually don’t need to contribute that much. The rule of thumb to make as much as you could eat personally doesn’t really work, since at least I don’t have a good sense for how many a meal’s worth of cocktail shrimp is. It all depends on what the distribution of courses is, but factor that into how much you make.

Second and furthermore, your meal should be easily distributable to those who like your meal more and less. Even if you have enough to feed everyone, personal-sized portions may leave many bread bowls half-eaten and burger-loving stomachs partially sated.  In general, food that requires a serving utensil are good, and food that is taken whole is suspect.

Third, your meal should be okay if left to sit for an hour or more. Between transportation, late arrivals, and general merriment, it can often be a long wait before your dish gets eaten, and that shouldn’t be a problem. I myself have failed this test many times, and although I feel industrious cooking while others are chatting, it’s a bummer to not be involved in the party that a potluck is. So, things that can get cold and can’t be revived by the microwave, such as most things crispy or a lot of meat, may not turn out very well by serving. You’ll get sympathy for your meal, but wouldn’t you rather have a delicious dish. The rules here obviously vary, depending on what the kitchen situation is at the potluck location. Most salads are fine if plopped in the fridge, it’s usually not a problem to bake something on the spot (as long as it doesn’t require too much checking), and soups can be kept at a simmer.

So those were a lot of rules, and I haven’t given you many good choices. Here are a few that I think work well:

  • just about any cold salad. Leave the nuts, other toppings, and salad dressing to mix in just before serving
  • soups and stews. You’re supposed to let them sit anyways, and most can be warmed on the stove or nuked at the last minute
  • cookies. I’ve found that by dessert, most people are usually stuffed, and cookies are a small enough offering that everyone will take at least 1
  • do it yourself foods of any variety. Offloading cooking to the consumer makes your life easier, allows everyone to customize as they desire, and usually means that the components can be left to sit for awhile beforehand

Happy potlucking!

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