Thursday, December 11, 2003

Invite your pals to pitch in for a potluck
Thursday, December 11, 2003
By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 
There's nothing like a party to catch up with friends, neighbors and family. But with jobs, housework and kids' activities, who has the time -- or energy -- to pull together a formal event?
Melissa and Stephen Neely host their annual potluck party at their home in Regent Square. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)
If you enjoy more casual entertaining, there's an easier alternative: a potluck party.

Potlucks, or what some refer to as "cooperative entertaining," are those informal get-togethers where everyone contributes a dish and shares in the responsibility of cleaning up. All the organizer has to do is offer his or her home as the gathering place and provide the basics -- drinks, napkins and plates, utensils and maybe a main course or two.

"It's an opportunity to socialize for very little effort," says Sherry Goldman of Highland Park. She and her boyfriend, Marty Sivitz, give a potluck for about a dozen friends every six weeks or so. "You can fill your house with people and good food, and it's all very loose and spontaneous."

Melissa Neely has been throwing a holiday "soup" potluck with husband Stephen each December since 1993 in their Regent Square home. "It takes the pressure off the host to provide everything."
The annual party has become so popular that they usually get more than 100 people. They've even developed a "soup party" Web site so attendees -- they bring their own soup bowls and spoons -- can get recipes and view photographs.

"It's the kind of environment where everyone feels welcome," says Neely, who has also organized ice cream potlucks, where everyone brings a different topping. 

Another great thing about potlucks, say those who throw them, is the wide variety of food you end up with. Do everything yourself and you probably can't prepare more than five or six different dishes. But ask 10 or 20 couples to bring their favorite appetizer or side dish and suddenly the dining room table is covered with everything from curried rice salad and shrimp canapes to cheese squares and chocolate-cherry cheesecake. 

"We end up with the most amazing food," says Mary Denison of Squirrel Hill. For 25 years she has been getting together with friends from the East End for a pre-holiday potluck. "I could never do something like that on my own."

Sounds easy enough. A few phone calls or a written invitation, and you're on your way to a fun-filled evening. But beware: The term potluck suggests something random and impromptu -- friends invited on short notice to dinner would be treated like family and served whatever happened to be "in the pot" that night. But potlucks actually take organizing from both hosts and guests.
Here are some tips on planning a successful potluck:

Make it clear the event is a potluck. Although many people ask if they can bring something when invited to a party, it's often just a polite gesture. Make sure everyone understands this is a cooperative undertaking and everyone will be bringing a dish. 

Do a little organizing. The best potlucks are about variety. Unless you want to take the chance that everyone will show up with a vegetable plate or a tray of brownies, suggest a category -- appetizer, side dish, dessert, vegetable -- and keep note of who's bringing what. That said, draw the line at asking someone to bring a specific dish unless the person is a close friend or family. As Miss Manners has noted in her column, "The assignment is not 'You're making beef Wellington for 50' but 'Is there anything special you'd like to bring?' "

Remember that not everyone is handy in the kitchen. Give those who can't or don't want to cook the option of bringing a beverage, such as wine or beer or the makings for punch.

Think "theme." Some people find it overwhelming to have to come up with a dish out of the blue. If you settle on a theme -- say Mexican or Hawaiian luau or, in the Neelys' case, soup -- that will narrow the choices. 

If you're the host, cover the basics. It's the organizer's job to provide drinks, plates, napkins and silverware, in addition to any main courses. Because not everyone will bring food that's ready to be dished up, you'll want extra serving utensils, cracker and chip baskets and serving platters. 

Because guests can't always tell what a dish is, Melissa Neely also provides toothpicks with little paper tags, so the food can be labeled. That way, if a guest doesn't eat meat or is allergic to shellfish, he or she will know to avoid it. Neely also occasionally writes the name of the cook on the flag so diners know whom to ask for the recipe.

If it's a particularly large potluck, Neely provides table trays, so friends won't have to juggle a plate and glass on their laps.

Prepare for leftovers. According to Good Housekeeping etiquette expert Peggy Post, whoever cooked the potluck dish gets to take it home. But it's always nice to divvy up any leftovers with the rest of the guests. Have a supply of small (and portable) plastic containers, plastic wrap/aluminum foil and zip-lock bags on hand. Neely also posts a sign at the door reminding guests to take their bowls and spoons with them. 

Relax and have fun. Potlucks are meant to be casual affairs, so don't get bent out of shape if -- despite your gentle suggestions -- everyone brings similar dishes. Remember that if one dish is bad, another more than likely will cover for it.

"Don't take it so seriously," says Stephen Neely, who gives prizes for the most "original" soup bowl. "Use it as an excuse to call up your old friends and meet some new ones. Enjoy your company."

How to be a perfect potluck guest
Don't forget to RSVP! If you were throwing a party, wouldn't you want a general idea of how many people would be coming so you could plan your cooking? There's a big difference between cooking a ham or pasta dish for 10 people and providing enough for 40.
Think easy and mobile. Who wants to drive for 20 minutes with a steaming hot casserole on the lap? The best potluck dishes are easy to transport and don't require much assembly once you arrive. If something needs to be heated up, check with the host to make sure there will be an oven or microwave available.
Don't be afraid to ask how many people will be at the party. However, most people will take only a small sample of any particular dish, so you don't have to worry about making enough food for everyone. A dish that serves between 6 and 8 people is generally large enough.
Don't forget serving utensils. Unless they're in the restaurant business, the hosts will have a limited supply of tongs, cheese knives, serving spoons and spatulas. Worried about losing or forgetting it? Write your name on a small piece of tape and place it on the underside.
Be festive. Although plastic plates and bowls make for easy clean-up, they usually aren't as pretty as the real thing. So pull that serving dish you save for special occasions out of the china closet -- this is a party, after all -- and properly display the dish you worked so hard to prepare. Just mark it the same way you do the serving utensils.
Feel free to limit your thanks to the door. Because everyone contributed to the party's success, no one has to write a thank you note or hold a reciprocal party.

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