Before I go, I have something to say

Potluck Paranoia

I have nothing against potlucks. The idea of having everybody contribute to a meal is a nice, generous idea. Think of the poor hostess, peeling potatoes, boiling peas, zesting lemons, toasting hazelnuts. It’s enough to send a poor woman to bed, just as the guests are arriving, empty-handed.

So it can be a Good Thing, as Martha Stewart might put it, to have a collaborative meal. Still, I have a few concerns about potlucking.

First of all, how directive can the hostess be? (Or, okay, the host.) I remember a “Sesame Street” skit in which a king decides to have a picnic, and invites all of his minions to bring a dish. On their first attempt, everyone brings potato salad. Sigh. I love potato salad, and I know how hard it is to construct, but still, more than three kinds is too much.

So the king issues a “no potato salad” edict. He even mentions that he would have enjoyed some watermelon. You know what’s coming, right? On the second go-round, everybody brings a . . . watermelon. The king is beside himself. What to do? Then, as so often happens in fairy tales, a young child steps up to make a suggestion. “The emperor has no clothes!” he shouts. Er – nope, wrong fairy tale. No, what this brilliant child suggests is, “Why don’t you PLAN your picnic?” I should mention here that this is a small kingdom, so it’s not that difficult a task.

The king is delighted. He begins singing. Pointing at one serf, he croons, “You bring the fruit salad!” and all the minions answer, “You got it, King!” Then, “You bring the ice cream!” “You got it, King! “You bring the whipped cream!” “You got it, King!” And so on. And they ate happily after.

I agree with that kid. The hostess can make helpful suggestions – “Your biscuits are so good, why don’t you bring a dozen of those?” – or be more general – “Would you like to bring a salad, or dessert?” It’s nice to have a choice.

So I chose salad, on my last potluck event. Fine; I’ve got scads of recipes for salad. Fruit, kale, rice, pasta, Greek, Israeli, Mexican, potato. I’ve grown tired of the potato salad from the grocery store, so I decide on that.

But I’m caught up short when that “Sesame Street” scenario comes to mind. What if three other people volunteer for salad, and all of us decide on potato? That would be a disaster! I look through my bulging file of salad recipes, and pull out a few of my cookbooks, which fill an entire case in our kitchen. (This doesn’t mean I’m a great cook. It means I love to read them while I eat Saltines and cheese.)

One by one, I go through the ritual. First, I think, “Oh! This sounds terrific!” Then, I remember somebody, some time, not liking whatever it was I brought to a potluck. Finally, I turn back to the potato salad, because everybody likes potato salad, right? It’s even vegetarian, though not vegan, not with the mayo and the hard boiled eggs.

This brings back a particularly memorable moment from my hostessing past. My husband was having some colleagues over, and I took a few hours off work in order to eat with them the meal I’d made the night before. I knew at least two of the attendees were vegetarian, so I made my fabulous Spicy Vegetarian Chili, which is packed with beans and chickpeas and peppers and really good chili powder. I’ve made it a million times, and it’s always a hit.

But as I was ladling it out, one of the guests, a young vegetarian I’ll call Katie, piped up. “But I don’t like vegetables!” she whined.

Really. Oh, the things I thought of saying. “All right, Katie, I’m going to make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, just like I used to when my picky kids refused to eat what I was serving.” Or: “What part of ‘I’m a vegetarian’ don’t you understand?” Or even: “Katie, didn’t your mom teach you anything about manners?”

But I did not. I simply smiled and served the rest of our guests. Katie could live on cornbread, for all I cared.

I once attended a potluck at someone else’s house, and one of the fellow guests, a woman I liked, said to me, “I don’t understand this potluck business. When I have a dinner, I do all the cooking. The other people are the guests; they shouldn’t have to cook.” While I could see her point, I found it fascinating that she felt this way. She was from the East coast. Maybe New Yorkers don’t do potlucks. Maybe it’s a modest Midwestern thing.

And maybe it’s all about control. If you do the invitations, set the table, plan the menu, do all the cooking, and serve it with Great Grandma’s sterling silver flatware, well, everything is your choice. I’ve done that, making the whole meal myself, and usually it turned out just great, especially if I could prepare most of it the day before. One time, in fact, a grateful guest exclaimed, as I brought out my two (!) perfectly composed salads, “We should eat like this all the time!”

I was pleased, but tired. After all, I’m not running a restaurant, and neither are my friends. So these days, if I feel like bringing a cherry pie, I call ahead and ask if anybody else had that idea. If not, great. If so, it’s back to files and cookbooks. And whatever I bring, I just assume everyone in my kingdom will love it.

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