I give the worst parties. Seriously. I have no idea why people keep coming to my house. I tend to issue invitations that request that you join us and please bring a lawn chair, a dish to pass and a beverage, too.
I tend to supply meat, water and fire. It’s akin to being invited to dinner by a caveman.
I am Midwestern by birth and thus born and bred in the hostessing style of “potluck.” A potluck is a gathering of people where attendees contribute a dish of food to be shared among the group. It is not only a great way to feed a large gathering, but each attendee is guaranteed to like at LEAST one dish on the buffet.
This is not to say that potluck is not fraught with danger.
There appear to be two schools of thought on the process. One says “we are here for the camaraderie and the food is but an afterthought. Bring what you can. You will not be judged.”
The other say “this is an Olympic level competition with tiers for creativity and points for difficulty of preparation. You WILL be judged. For these types ‘store bought’ is heresy.”
Potluck expectations and competition bridge the spectrum from devout foodie, who will bring only free range salmon and organic chutney, to a noncook in fear for her life is she so much as shows up with the wrong plastic plates.
It should be noted that with rare exception this is generally a competition among women. I am loathe to make sexist assumptions but suffice to say that you rarely hear men saying, “Can you BELIEVE that Bob brought INSTANT coffee and store-bought muffins to the last tractor pull? He is DEAD TO ME!”
Timing is everything. As host, my experience is that if there is something I absolutely “must have” at the meal — I provide it myself.
I have experienced guests say they are bringing the potatoes for a large Christmas meal, only to arrive five HOURS late. (True story and one of the many reasons why my continued love and respect for this person should qualify me for SAINTHOOD).
Still, she must do penance. From now on she is assigned potato chips. Only. We don’t even trust her with dip.
Suffice to say that if it’s Thanksgiving and you are the hostess, you don’t let your ne’er do well nephew bring the turkey. He’s good for a lesser side salad, at best.
Salad is a tricky term. You will often hear experienced potluckers say they are bringing “lettuce salad.” This is not to mean that the salad will contain ONLY lettuce. Granted, that may be the case since a hunk of iceberg drowned in ranch does tend to meet the uniform Midwestern salad standard.
Generally, however, the term “lettuce salad” simply implies that actual vegetables will be involved with said salad. To the uninitiated this might seem redundant, but this is a region that calls Jell-O “salad” with a completely straight face so it pays to be specific.
If you are taking a salad to a party, you should aim to have as much of it as possible, chopped, prepped as you can. Showing up at the host’s home with a head of lettuce and a smile is simply not acceptable. Asking the hostess to dig out a bowl, round up some tongs, and inquiring as to whether she has any dressing is cause for justifiable homicide.
One summer we had people bring watermelon — as in WHOLE watermelon — to a Boy Scout picnic deep in the heart of a primitive campground approximately 10,000 miles from even the most basic signs of civilization. Meaning: They dropped the WHOLE watermelons on the table and said “I hope someone has a knife?”
Have you ever tried to slice a watermelon with a pocket-knife? That is not the definition of “be prepared.”
This is not to say that if you are not a good cook you cannot be a valuable contributor to a classic Midwestern potluck.
ALWAYS assigned to a noncook were beverages. Namely “pop.” Never “soda” because hey, we aren’t uppity east coast types.
Where other food cultures might contemplate which wine goes best with a particular entree, Midwestern potluck culture knows that nothing complements a table groaning with creamed carbohydrates and starches quite like a nice, sugary beverage.
You say red, white or rose? We say “Coke” or “Pepsi.”
Midwestern potlucks are as American as hot dogs and apple pie and you are likely to find BOTH at the banquet table so eat, drink and be merry but remember, failure to follow proper potluck protocol just might be a recipe for disaster.
Kymberly Foster Seabolt wishes everyone a delicious and varied life.