A little this, a little that - and plenty of fun

Holiday potluck takes on renewed popularity

December 17, 2003|By Suzanne White | Suzanne White,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The announcements have been sent and the sign-up sheets are posted - it's time again for the holiday potluck.

After enjoying years of understated popularity at Christmas, the potluck seems to be gaining momentum as a carefree and fun way to entertain, draw people together and let them taste foods from prized family recipes and ethnic specialties throughout the year.

"I'd say there's a revival of potlucks ... it's a new trend," said Maryana Vollstedt, author of The Big Book of Potluck, whose cookbook features a smorgasbord of easy-to-prepare and serve dishes and a blueprint for planning the perfect potluck party.

The key? "Organizing," Vollstedt said.

Some basics: Give yourself time to plan, choose a theme and location, get a head count, calculate the quantity of food you'll need, make sure there's an oven, microwave and refrigerator available, use a buffet table, spread the word and delegate, delegate, delegate.

Tricia Herban, owner of the 55 East Bed and Breakfast in Annapolis, has been throwing potluck parties for 15 years. Once or twice a year, people gather at her place to enjoy a meal before heading out to a concert at St. John's College or a play.

"I figure out how many are coming, then decide how many dishes of each kind and how many each should serve to provide an ample amount of food for the appetizer, salad, green vegetable, starch, meat entree and dessert," Herban said. "Then as people sign up, I let them pick what to bring."

Cannot cook? You still can contribute to a potluck. Ice is always needed. Cheese, bread, condiments, fresh fruit or wine would be welcome. Herban suggests asking the local deli to prepare an antipasto platter or olive arrangement.

Above all, don't come empty-handed. Or show up with a bottle of ketchup that's not needed, or box of doughnuts or store-bought cake or chicken salad from the grocery-store deli and try to pass it off as your own made fresh that morning in your kitchen.

Another piece of potluck etiquette: If your baked ham slid halfway across the back seat of the car, over the dog's blanket, the box of Kleenex and your kid's soiled football jersey, don't announce it. Hint: You'll be talked about - at length - later.

Good potluck guests are savvy participants. They wrap their contributions well - nobody wants sweet-and-sour meatball sauce slopped on the carpet - label their dishes, bring enough food, offer to help with the cleanup and, above all, provide a dish everyone will enjoy.

Long & Foster Realtor Barb Seely has been counting the days until she can savor one co-worker's sesame, chicken, pasta and vegetable combo and another's festive zucchini-and-tomatoes casserole at the office potluck in Columbia tomorrow.

"It's a really wonderful tradition, and over the years it's evolved into a variety of food," Seely said. "We bring enough to feed our office, their families and a little more, then we sing Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs."

Seely said there is sure to be lots of recipe requests the next day.

At the Carroll County Farm Museum potluck, also set for tomorrow, staffers will be providing barbecue, pasta salad, banana-split cake, deviled eggs, old-fashioned bread pudding and a chicken salad with cranberries and walnuts.

Administrator Dottie Freeman traditionally brings a meat dish and soup and lets the others at the museum fill in the menu. This year, she plans to contribute a baked ham and hearty ham and navy bean soup.

"We enjoy our potluck," she said. "It's fun seeing the staff enjoy each other. We reminisce about our childhood and the things we have done at Christmas with our children."

While holiday office potlucks are in full swing now, this nearly effortless way of bringing people together works for tree-trimming parties, movie nights, school fund-raisers, business meetings, neighborhood block parties, showers and family reunions.

Vollstedt's book may inspire others to start a potluck tradition like the one she and husband, Reed, have enjoyed for 35 years. They belong to a gourmet dinner club that "potlucks" on New Year's Eve, where couples bring food, hostesses showcase their china and silver and the ladies dress grandly. Once, the men donned tuxedos.

"People like to bring something that is their specialty, and they like to show off a little," Vollstedt said.

So invite 10 people or 50. Make it hors d'oeuvres, soup, salad and bread, chocolate desserts or all pies. Tag it with a seasonal, ethnic, sports, teen, political or Broadway theme - the choices are endless, and the dishes are bound to be a topic of conversation.

"Everyone tries to make good food for a potluck, so there's a lot of fun with the food," said potluck veteran Herban. "The food acts as an icebreaker. Expect the event to take on a life of its own, and everyone will have a good time."

Curried Chutney Spread

Makes enough for 48 crackers

one 8-ounce package cream cheese

1/4 cup Major Grey's Chutney

1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped

3/4 teaspoon curry powder

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/4 cup finely minced celery

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