The art of the potluck

J.D. and I love going out to eat, but we also like to cook. And, fortunately for us, so do most of our friends. This allows us to partake in the art of the potluck.

Potlucks are a frugal way to entertain and bring people together to share good food. Even with quality ingredients, making food at home lets us eat well for less. The hosts provide the space, the organization, a dish or two, and perhaps a theme to spice it up a bit. The guests each bring something for the feast, and the focus is on enjoying everyone's contribution.

This distributes the cost and effort (enabling more people to host), and makes gatherings more group-oriented. If everyone is on a tighter budget, a potluck still feels like a treat — but with a lower bill. The food choices are usually more varied, too!

Despite the name, to make a potluck successful, you need more than mere luck. No one's happy with a meal composed only of chips and dips. Without planning, you may end up with six meat dishes and no salads (actually, J.D. would be all for that), or five desserts and a bag of rolls.

As the host, you can either assign items based on the cooking talents (or time constraints, or food allergies) of the guests, or arrange some kind of sign-up so guests can pick their own contribution but avoid too much duplication. Online invitation systems are helpful for these events if the group is large. I find that some groups take well to a themed potluck, such as “Fiesta Night”. This sparks the imagination and can help ensure that the food goes well together.

If your group includes families with young (or picky) children or people with specific food requirements, make sure they bring something that they themselves will eat. Another solution is to devise a “build-a-potluck”: The hosts, for example, might provide the chili, or baked potatoes, or cheese pizzas, or taco meat, and the guests bring all the fixings and toppings. For dessert, a brownie sundae bar can serve the same purpose.

For a streamlined potluck, guests should arrive with their food ready to serve. Unless you know the host can accommodate you, avoid being the person who brings a bag of groceries and expects to use the entire kitchen to prepare your bok choy sautéed in sesame oil. If you're the host, the responsibility falls to you, then, to provide those items that need to be served hot out of the oven or right off the grill.

Guests should always know the size of the group they're feeding, so that they can estimate how much to bring. And as a guest, it's helpful if you bring your own serving dishes and utensils so the host doesn't have to scrounge up 12 serving spoons. If you bring a pot of soup, make sure the host has enough bowls, or provide them yourself. Just be sure to mark your items or otherwise make sure they get home with you.

Tip: My sister keeps on hand a few cheap but plain salad bowls and serving platters for those times when you know you'll have to leave early; it avoids the hassles of either trying to transfer your food mid-party or having to retrieve your plate later on. Thrift stores are an excellent source for these.

If you have an especially large group — for a family reunion, say — you might even make assignments based on an alphabetical organization scheme, or how far people are traveling, or some other method.

Some of J.D.'s extended family are Mennonites; they have the art of the potluck down to a science — and the food can't be beat. Last summer, we went to a cousin's home for roasted home-raised pig and home-grown corn on the cob. The rest of us chipped in with salads, breads, desserts, and pop. We picked the pork bones clean and made a pile of empty cobs!

In our group of friends, potlucks are especially popular for brunch, but they can work for any meal. You can do a potluck picnic in the park, dress up a potluck into something fancy or keep it strictly casual. Among gardeners, potlucks are a wonderful opportunity to share your bounty during the harvest. And BBQ potlucks are always a hit in our grilling season.

What about those who don't cook? No problem. A cheese platter or fruit salad is often welcome, but these won't qualify as frugal if they're purchased pre-made, so if thrift is one of the goals, even the non-cooks may need to get out the cutting board or use the microwave.

If you invite a few guests who are truly kitchen-phobic, they can bring the beer (or beverage of choice), or maybe even the chips and dip. Those of us who don't often purchase prepared foods may enjoy the occasional guilty pleasure of Ruffles and French Onion dip! And use common sense: don't have the perpetually-late-guy bring the appetizers. If someone's driving a long distance to come, don't assign them something requiring refrigeration.

With a bit of planning to go along with the “potluck”, these gatherings can be fun, frugal and family-friendly. Entertaining doesn't have to be a huge expense or burden to the hosts. Add some friends to spread the load and share the good times, and you can focus on the people you wanted to see instead of stressing over providing the entire menu.

Thanks to Kris for filling in for me at the last second. I'm confident I'll finish my manuscript today, which means that I should finally be able to give you a preview of the book tomorrow. Second photo by Roland.

More about...Food, Frugality

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