Pleasures of Potluck

Dinners are a way for folks to get together with friends -- and enjoy some crowd-pleasing dishes.


Want to throw a low-stress, low-cost, minimal-labor party for a crowd? Do what New York photographer Ellen Watson did when she invited 80 friends to help celebrate her husband's 44th birthday. "I just grilled some chicken," said Watson, "and everyone else brought the rest. I've done a lot of potluck dinners over the years. It's a great way to entertain a very large group, save time and experiment with lots of new foods."

Watson is not alone in her enthusiasm. These days the potluck dinner, once thought of as suitable mainly for church functions and block parties, is enjoying a major comeback. "It's one of the easiest ways to entertain, and it's something that focuses on your guests," said Allana Baroni, author of "Simplify the Holidays" (Readers Digest, $17.95).

While it's true that potluck dinners have been given a few bad raps in the past, some former critics have become eager proponents. Initially, in "Emily Post's Entertaining" (HarperPerennial, $20), author Peggy Post offered the opinion that the potluck party "does not take the place of the party you truly give for your friends. As long as you can afford to provide even the simplest food and drink, you should accept the entire responsibility."

But more recently, when reached by telephone, Post qualified that view. "I think potluck parties can be terrific," she said. "The potluck dinner enables people who are short on time and short on funds to get together with friends. And that," she said, "is the most important part of entertaining, more important than having a super-fancy whatever."

Today's potluck dinner can be as fancy (or as plain) as the host or hostess likes. That's because it's no longer about potluck; the best potluck parties involve careful planning.

How does premeditated potluck work? Most of the time, said Lori Walther Powell, a food editor at Gourmet, the host or hostess is responsible for the main course. "Decide what it will be," Powell said, "and then tell everybody else, so they can plan around that. Just make sure to monitor everything so that you end up with a sensible meal." Not 12 desserts and one vegetable.

Frank Allison, a professional bridge player who entertains often in his Hempstead, N.Y., home, has his own way of planning. "I don't tell people what to bring; I just give them a category," Allison said. "I generally ask people to bring an appetizer, salad, vegetable, wine or dessert."

Allison said he has one inflexible rule: "Never, ever let anyone else bring the main dish. You can never be sure you'll have enough or that you'll have the right stuff to go with it."

Still, knowing what everyone will bring is not enough to ensure the success of a potluck dinner. There are several pitfalls a well-meaning host can encounter; know how to avert them. "Make sure guests are punctual," said Colin Cowie, author of "Effortless Elegance With Colin Cowie" (Harper Collins, $47.50). Cowie recalled attending a potluck dinner for 40 that was nearly ruined because the person bringing the salad had stopped at another party along the way. "Because of her, 40 hungry guests ate late," Cowie said.

To avoid that kind of snag, Cowie suggests asking guests to drop foods off the day before, preferably with serving containers.

How to serve can give rise to a whole new set of problems. What if a guest brings something in a carrying container, expecting you to provide the proper serving plate, bowl or casserole? Powell suggested you either have your guests come with their own serving dishes or else inform them ahead of time exactly what you will supply. "The key is to know in advance," Powell said.

Last-minute food assemblage can be another stumbling block. One educator found that out when she planned a potluck theme dinner for a group of people with whom she had recently traveled in Russia. "Everybody brought a different Russian dish -- things like caviar, pelmeni, borscht," she said. "The problem was that a lot of people brought labor-intensive things that needed to be prepared on the spot."

Because she couldn't allow guests to flounder in an unfamiliar kitchen, she supervised and helped out. "I remember saying to the last guest, `Couldn't you stay longer?' " she said. "I didn't get a chance to speak with anybody, and I was exhausted."

In the more old-fashioned variation of the potluck party, the covered dish dinner, the problem of last-minute preparation rarely comes up; people simply bring the food in the dish in which it will be reheated.

Party givers who wonder if they're doing enough for their guests should remember there's more to a party than just the food. The way you set up the buffet table says a lot, according to Baroni. "You can use beautiful centerpieces, fabulous linens," she said. "Use risers, like cake stands or glass bricks, to give things dimension, making some higher, others lower; for small tables, that's a real space-saver."

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