Potlucks: The art and science of the communal buffet

I’ve been lucky in pot and unlucky in pot.

There was the memorable Women’s Day potluck of 1995 where all 12 dishes contained chickpeas with a sprinkling of Ani di Franco. There was also a vegan potluck wedding that resulted in a traffic spike at the McDonald’s drive-through later that night.

However, sometimes serendipity results in a perfect meal of complementary dishes.

While my workplace doesn’t engage in the widespread office potluck phenomenon, two of my co-workers have mastered the art of potlucking in their own unique way.

Adam Humphrey has been hosting a biweekly potluck with friends throughout the winter, with 20 to 30 attendees. Each potluck had a theme, which included various ethnicities in the early days, to more recently, the seven deadly sins.

Humphrey’s potlucks are large, welcoming events with a core group of acquaintances cycling in and out. The potluck Facebook page has 58 members.

Humphrey’s potlucks have become a time to check in and get caught up on people’s lives.

“It’s also become a time to toast and appreciate the accomplishments in life,” Humphrey says. “If something has happened in someone’s life, it’s a time for congratulations or celebration. Someone might be leaving town or new in town.”

His potlucks are also not exclusive.

“Every time I try to make sure there are one or two people that have never been so it’s a really cool place for people to meet 20 new people at once. People are always welcome to bring friends.”

They seldom have etiquette issues, such as the chronic chip-bringer and they rarely suffer from the chick pea syndrome. On occasion, they have had to monitor the food distribution, such as at the Maritime-themed potluck where everyone was restricted to one piece of lobster, but other than that, it’s a place for culinary discovery, and healthy competition.

Bryna Cable has taken the potluck to a new level of competitiveness. She hosts an annual “Throw it Down” potluck, where invitees are encouraged to let their reputation stand on their best recipes.

The concept grew out of a chocolate mousse recipe of her mother’s that’s reputed to be the best chocolate mousse ever.

“I thought to myself that that I bet everyone has a recipe that they think beats all others, like my chocolate mousse,” she says. “There is no need for another chocolate mousse recipe.”

The catch was that everyone had to prepare a speech to accompany their dish. At the end of the meal, attendees voted on their three favourites and the winners got prizes, while everyone else got to take home copies of the recipes. No secret recipes. Cable’s potluck has evolved over the years.

“The first two were just a classic Throw it Down theme,” she says. “The third year was vegetarian and I think it was the best. The fourth year was the working-parents edition, so it had to have been made in 30 minutes or less and the fifth year was the “best of” so everyone was given all the recipes and picked someone else’s recipe to make.”

The speech requirement was eventually reserved for winners.

Cable’s potlucks are successful partly because they encourage people to do their best, rather than bring the minimum, but also because they bring people together.

“Part of the success is that we usually have it in April,” Cable says. “Christmas is over, vacations are over and people aren’t going away at that time. Most times there’s been a bit of a lull socially and the potluck just brings everyone together after winter.”

The mystery of potlucks is how various tastes, preferences, cooking abilities and expectations will come together; chance is their blessing and burden.

But whether sharing culinary joy or sorrow, potlucks are a great way to break bread together.

Refreshment Refresher

Potluck etiquette varies depending on how formal or casual the meal is, as well as the size of the group. Here are a few guidelines.

1. Bring food. Everyone must bring something to eat. Condiments, chips, and a 2-litre pop are not acceptable, nor are plastic cutlery and cups. Alcohol for sharing may be an acceptable substitute for food only after consulting the host; otherwise, you risk having a frat party rather than a meal. Dishes that require additional preparation or warming are not advised.

3. Store-bought vs. homemade. Store-bought may be okay at a potluck of convenience or an office potluck (also known as the President’s Choice meatball buffet). At minimum, take it out of the packaging and put it in a proper dish. It’s up to you whether to pretend you’ve made it yourself.

4. Leftovers. Opinion is divided on whether to take home one’s leftovers at the end of the meal. On one hand, you want to save the host from wrapping and storing 20 different potato salads. On the other hand, what kind of cheapskate takes home the last piece of cheesecake? A moderate approach is to first offer leftovers to the host, who may accept or decline. Under no circumstances should you take alcohol home with you, opened or not.

5. Host with the Most. Potluck hosts should make an exceptional and plentiful dish. The host should provide all non-alcoholic drinks, and most often provides alcoholic drinks as well.

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