Offices all across Maryland have given notice: "Potluck Party. Please sign up for a dish."
Whether you love potlucks (free food in the middle of the day) or hate them (yet another take-home assignment), many employees will attend at least one during the holiday season.
Bosses view potlucks as a no-fail compromise between a pricey catered holiday party and the Grinchlike absence of any celebration. That's why employees at real-estate offices, schools and many small businesses have pulled out their recipe boxes and are hunting through their cards for the perfect dish.
Although not everyone will spend days covered in flour perfecting that homemade apple-turnover recipe, some employees will inevitably arrive at the potluck armed with a promotion-worthy offering.
And some, like Jan Hayden at an Ellicott City real estate office, will be dubbed queen or king of the office potluck. Her crab dip has approached legendary status.
"I love to cook, but we're all so darned busy that it's hard to find the time to do it," said Hayden, assistant manager at O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, which held its holiday potluck last week. "Potlucks give me an excuse."
Hayden said she rarely has any choice as to what she can bring to the annual holiday potluck.
"They always ask for the crab dip," she said. Hayden once made 10 casseroles of crab dip - each serves about 20 - for a company picnic.
"No matter how much I make, I never have any left to bring home," she said.
For many employees, nibbling home-cooked Swedish meatballs or your boss' prized brownies beats the usual microwaveable lunch or fast food. A potluck survey of 744 employees throughout the country conducted by the now-defunct Web site toxicboss.com found that about half the respondents enjoyed potlucks, while the other half disliked the events because they felt pressured to produce the perfect plate.
Dina McCoy, another real estate agent with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, said she enjoys the potlucks because it brings the office together. "We're all so busy that this is one of the few times we can sit down and say hi."
McCoy, who usually brings something elaborate, said she opted to go the store-bought dessert route this year. "I'm just too busy this year, so I'm cheating and bringing something ready-made," she said. Although McCoy said her office is filled with phenomenal cooks, she doesn't feel the need to stun her bosses or anyone else at the office with her cooking prowess.
To sidestep a potluck full of people who would rather be dining out, most offices make them an elective part of the day. Sign-up sheets serve as a gateway for entry, and those who want to opt out of the gathering can by simply not bringing anything.
Signing up for a specific food item also helps avoid potlucks where the main fare consists of 15 trays of brownies and a two-liter bottle of diet cola.
Teachers at the Columbia Academy have the potluck sign-up down to a science. The teachers hold potlucks during each of the school's nonacademic days, when children don't come in but teachers do.
Instead of cooking a whole dish, each teacher contributes a piece, such as bread, pickles, chips or lunch meat, of a picnic-style lunch. All parts of the lunch are designated on the sign-up list.
"We tend to get very detailed on the sign-ups," said Kristen Erickson, an administrative assistant who helps organize the potlucks. "It's just too hard not to."
For the school's holiday potluck, coming up Friday, teachers can sign up to bring items such as a spiral ham, lasagna, meatballs or chicken wings.
Some offices have also tried themed potlucks. Patricia Rose, marketing services director at the Baltimore Life Cos. in Owings Mills, said her division has potlucks to celebrate employee anniversaries.
Recently, employees tried a chocolate theme.
"The smell got a bit overwhelming, but I think that was one of everyone's favorites," Rose said.
Other offices, such as O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, keep their potlucks open to the whims of their employees. Ann Alexander, a processing secretary who helps organize the annual holiday potluck, said employees do not even need to sign up to attend their party.
"We don't worry about what everyone's going to bring," she said. "It just works itself out."
With about 50 people contributing to the party every year, there's never a shortage of food or variety, she said. "But no matter how much food we have, no matter what we bring," Alexander said, "it all always gets eaten."
Jan Hayden's Hot Crab Delight
Serves about 20
two 8-ounce packages softened cream cheese
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 to 4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 pint sour cream
small package slivered almonds
1 pound jumbo lump crab
2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
In casserole dish, mix thoroughly all ingredients except crab and cheese. Gently add crab, trying not to break it apart too much. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Sprinkle on Cheddar cheese, and bake another 5 minutes.
Serve warm with crackers or slices of sourdough bread. This can freeze for up to a month.
Jackie's Sour Cream Coffeecake
Serves about 15
2 cups sugar
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
To make batter, cream together sugar, butter and vanilla. Add eggs and beat well. Add flour, baking powder and salt. Fold in sour cream. Pour half batter in a well-greased tube pan. Mix cinnamon, sugar and pecans and pour filling into pan. Pour rest of batter over top. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes.
- Patti Kincaid, director of the Columbia Academy (her friend Jackie gave her the recipe)