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Potluck Etiquette

January 31, 2008

Let me begin by saying, I’m a huge fan of potlucks.  Potlucks are the backbone of the pinko revolution, in my opinion.  Potlucks have a spirituality all their own; a syncronicity.  When no one has determined who should bring what, yet everyone arrives and finds the glorious spread, laid out in all it’s splendor:  appetizers, salad, soup, pasta, side dish, main dish, side dish, drinks.  Without even trying, a perfectly balanced community meal.  Every so often there comes a time when one is faced with five spinach salads and a tub of cool whip, but most of the time the stars align and the Potluck God (or more likely, Goddess) smiles down on the community. 

The topic of potluck etiquette, however, comes up often in my circle of friends.  The only real negative effect I’ve noticed is that potlucks engender a certain level of guilt for various and personal faux pas, actions that may be understood by no one but the afflicted.   Therefore, I shall pick up where Emily Post so rudely left us hanging, and bring you the Rules of Potluck.  I hope you find them acceptable for your future events.

Store-bought food:  Store-bought food is not a problem as long as it

  1.  Does not outshine the dishes made by people who at least attempted home cooking
  2. The bearer of store-bought food arrives early enough to deposit the dish into a passably handsome container
  3. Everyone attempts to keep it a secret, therefore staving off endless apologies that could become feeble attempts at breaking the ice if conversation lags

Tardiness- The responsibility lies with the host to communicate whether or not the potluck is a sit-down at the table meal, or an endless trough of mill-and-nibble.  If it is the latter, than anytime within the hour of start-time is acceptable, if it is the former, than everyone should arrive at the same time. 

Unacceptable potluck offerings- steak, meatloaf, soy loaf, soy cheese on anything, salads with under three ingredients,  a 20-40oz bottle of beer.  There may be towns where meatloaf or pot roast are acceptable to bring to a potluck, but this isn’t one of them.   Large hunks of imitation meat are extremely risky and should be avoided, and bringing one beer is simply NOT COOL. 

Foods that should make potluck comebacks– jello mold with marshmallows and canned fruit, tuna casserole, noodle kugel (a dish with egg noodles, eggs, and raisins), deviled eggs, pigs-in-a-blanket (with/without fake pigs), swedish meatballs in a crock pot, chicken pot pie with pearl onions, tabouli, mini quiches, lemon merengue pie. 

Suggested Topics of Conversation- Planning the revolution, keeping abortion safe and legal, political action of any kind, religious or spiritual beliefs and philosophies, childrearing, the latest great novel, art, cooking, creating, or senseless gossip is acceptable in small subgroups.

Unadvised Topics of Conversation- It’s not about topics as much as it’s about respecting the round robin.  Like a good song circle, no one person should dominate.  If you run out of topics, I suggest you begin telling a story and let the person to right add to it and so on until you’ve gone around the circle and the story is complete.  Proselytizing of any kind should be avoided, and there is an unspoken threshold of length of time spent discussing child’s bodily functions. 

That’s all I can think of at this time.  Feel free to add your thoughts if you want. 

12 Comments leave one →
  1. mar permalink
    February 2, 2008 11:54 pm

    ugh, i just got back from the worst potluck ever. here’s what there was-keep in mind this was for dinner for about 12 families, all with kids:
    –2 cold macaroni and cheeses, one Annie’s and one Velveeta
    –bucket of spicy chicken thighs/wings
    –some brie and havarti
    –a giant jar of applesauce
    –a seven layer bean dip (best item)
    –lentils and rice (made by me)
    –a pan of tiny brownies from a mix.

    next time i’ll just eat beforehand. just awful.

  2. Doug permalink
    April 24, 2008 6:50 pm

    what’re you doing here….

  3. Pam permalink
    June 15, 2009 7:56 pm

    What I would llike to know is that when there is leftover food at a potluck at work, is it proper for someone to take some of the leftovers home with them? I guess it bothers me that when I have leftover food that I brought (because I often bring too much), undoubtly someone will want to take some of it home either for themselves or for their spouse.

  4. June 16, 2009 11:17 am

    Dear Pam,

    The potluck gods do accept sacrifices. As all other aspects of community building, we must often relinquish our individual particularities for the common good of the group. The fact that other people want to take your food home is truly a compliment to your culinary abilities, and you should receive it as such. Otherwise, you might find yourself spending the whole day hovering over and monitering your dish. I suppose you could stick a note on it, DO NOT TAKE HOME, or PROPERTY OF ME, but that really would cancel out the original purpose, that being, to share.

    Another option: cook the same amount, but bring a smaller portion to the potluck, and leave some at home for yourself to consume at your leisure.


  5. Susan permalink
    July 5, 2009 3:03 pm

    When you leave a neighborhood potluck, where get-togethers occur at least once a month and all live within a one block radius, is it polite to take your dish including all of its contents, home with you? I always thought that the ‘proper’ thing to do was to leave all of the food you brought at the host/hostess house.

  6. July 15, 2009 9:59 pm

    I just hosted a potluck lunch/birthday party for my boss at my work – and everyone in her dept. was invited. The persons who were supposed to bring the main dish and salad didn’t come, and at the last minute I ordered out for spaghetti and salad – $50. The restaurant sent a very large container of spagetti – whereas I asked for enough to feed 10 people, what I got was enough to feed an army! So I thought I would take it home and freeze it into lunch-size portions for my husband and myself to take for work lunches. Imagine how surprised I was when my boss sent an email to everyone who had attended the party, stating that they could enjoy the leftover food the next day for lunch. So the next day, I had some, and 2 co-workers ate some – I walked into the room while they were eating and I noticed that the container was still half full of spaghetti, so I said that I would take it home at the end of the work day. One of the girls just looked at me funny, and said wouldn’t I leave it there for the weekend help? (Ugh – 4 days later!) My thought is this: I was under the impression that when you bring a potluck item to work to share with coworkers, you take home the leftovers you brought (or paid for.) Am I wrong? This is always what has happened in the past, but maybe my boss thought she had the right to decide about leftover food since it was her birthday…

  7. July 16, 2009 8:49 am

    Hi Debbie,

    One question: Did anyone reimburse you for your $50?
    If so, the food is fair game. If not, it’s yours and you don’t have to give ANY excuses or explain why you are taking it home.

    In my humble opinion,

  8. May 10, 2010 7:48 pm

    I went to a potluck yesterday and took a gallon jug of iced tea, two bags of chips, a big bottle of Ginger ale and a veggie tray with dip, all store bought. I didn’t feel like cooking. While leaving I saw that the chips and iced tea were unopened, an by that point everyone was pretty much done eating. I’m a fairly impoverished student. Would it have been right to take back the things I brought that were unopened?

  9. January 6, 2011 4:05 pm

    Hi, At my place of employment, we often have potlucks. Sometimes when an employee retires, and sometimes… just because. I’m basically the person that puts them together… putting out the sign-up sheets, emailing everyone… over and over and over, making sure we have enough of each thing and not 25 desserts. But, I have a complaint/question… and I’d like to know if it’s a valid complaint… or am I just being too nitpicky????

    The same people always bring dishes. The same people always don’t, but eat. In the past, I’ve asked those that normally don’t bring anything (but DEFINITELY EAT) to donate $5 each and I’ll buy a huge sub or deli trays with the money. They complain that I’m making them put $5 whole dollars towards their lunch, which they’d buy somewhere else anyway. I’ve gotten to the point that I would LOVE to tell those people that don’t bring anything or donate that the potluck is for those that participate by actually bringing something. But I don’t… I just ask them several times what they are bringing.

    Am I being too harsh?

  10. Ferah permalink
    February 9, 2011 10:42 pm

    I would lovelovelove to a quote from this blog on my webgroup since we often have potlucks and sometimes have a hard time explaining to new people why they are so important to us. “Potlucks have a spirituality all their own; a syncronicity. When no one has determined who should bring what, yet everyone arrives and finds the glorious spread, laid out in all it’s splendor: appetizers, salad, soup, pasta, side dish, main dish, side dish, drinks. Without even trying, a perfectly balanced community meal.” Just beautiful- thanks!!

  11. Jimi permalink
    May 5, 2011 8:27 pm

    I am never sure how much of something I am suppose to take. The last pot luck we had there was actually an argument that you are suppose to bring enough of the item to feed everyone. What is correct bring about 8 to 10 services of something or enough to feed everyone?

  12. Jimi permalink
    May 6, 2011 12:18 pm

    Is there something that states how much of something you should bring? Number of people perhaps or depending on the type of dish that you are bringing. There is a hugh debate in my office as to how much of a dish you are suppose to bring. Enough to feed about 10 people or more?

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