It’s a staple of the holiday season. Friends, family and co-workers get together, everyone brings their favorite dish and it’s all spread out on a big table for people to sample. The pot luck holiday party is a great concept. We all get to showcase the dishes that are near and dear to our hearts. As a participant, it’s nice to have bites and samples of a lot of different dishes. The whole vibe is loose and fun, a few smart cocktails lubricate the conversation and we all comment on the eclectic array of foods and tell their stories. Seriously, this is a stellar idea.
However, in terms of execution, there is just way too much room for catastrophe at a pot luck party. Let’s just start with the food. We can’t all be Jacques Pepin and, quite honestly, that’s OK. But it’s important to realize that one man’s green bean casserole is another man’s foie gras with port wine reduction. For every perfectly prepared, colorful and flavorful pasta salad, there is a hideously frightening green jello mold with mandarin oranges and shredded coconut in it. For every heart-warming crock pot full of spicy little meatballs there is a gloppy, viscous bowl of mystery dip that smells like the bottom of a dumpster. For every decadent, fluffy chocolate trifle there’s a nine layer dip for which you can only indentify the ingredients of maybe one or two layers. Tuna casserole made with cream of mushroom soup? I think not. Marshmallows mixed with cool whip and canned pineapple? No thank you. Sliced bologna rolls filled with cream cheese and olives? Well, if there was nothing else to eat, I might choke one back. Given a choice, I’d find something else. My point here is that you’ll discover the most extreme pallet of tastes on a potluck table and not everything will be as appealing to you as it might be to someone else.
Moving on, let’s examine the presentation of a potluck dinner. Because in many cases these tend to be somewhat large gatherings, the host/hostess can’t always make sure there is rhyme or reason to the layout. What usually ends up happening is a plate of cookies is placed next to the french onion dip, which ends up alongside a carrot cake which gets set down next to a sandwich platter and so on. It’s just a disaster waiting to happen. If by chance a cookie happens to fall off your plate, it lands in the french onion dip rather than on another plate of cookies where you can retrieve it without embarrassment and humiliation. Now, the whole bowl of french onion dip tastes like cookies. A great potluck host/hostess will frequently set up separate tables, at least for the desserts, which does help a lot. Still, if you drop a meatball in the ambrosia salad, it can quickly become a sweet savory nightmare.
And that idea makes a logical transition to the behavior surrounding a potluck party. Think about it for a moment. You have a dozen different dishes, twenty people or more, some of them kids, and a loose and jovial spirit where folks hang out around the food, drink, schmooze and graze. They also cough, sneeze, double dip their chips, sample from different dishes using the same fork and stick their fingers in stuff for a little taste. Every dish on that table becomes a club med for bacteria and diseases. One would hope that the abundance of alcohol might kill the germs, but you just can’t be too certain. The next time you’re at a potluck, watch the way people behave around the food. This is why salad bars have sneeze guards.
I’m not saying the potluck gathering is a horrible thing. The concept is brilliant. It’s the execution that needs improvement. Happy holidays and here’s hoping that your potluck doesn’t end up with meatballs swimming in ambrosia salad…unless someone prepares it that way, in which case, bon appetite.