Think tables overflowing with casserole dishes, steaming crock pots, platters of meat, baskets of bread, and desserts of all types and deliciousness. Think Christmas Banquet, Thanksgiving Dinner, Labor Day Picnic, Memorial Day Picnic–each an annual “potluck opportunity” at church.
I can still remember the feeling of anticipation I had as a kid on the evening of our yearly Christmas banquet. It marked the beginning of Christmas break. We would come home from school (really a half day of Christmas partying) and try not to eat much of anything in order to have a completely empty stomach for the feast that night. The Christmas banquet was a time of trying a little of everything and stuffing yourself full of yummy food and even yummier desserts. It meant Christmas was finally here, and I loved the annual potluck!
All that changed when I became an adult. All of the sudden potlucks were no longer any fun because it now meant that I had to… (gasp) … bring a dish?! What? Potlucks were a source of dread instead of the celebration they were intended to be. In order to spare yourself from the embarrassment church potlucks can bring, here are some Rules of Engagement I have discovered.Just remember these guidelines and the church potluck can once again become something to be enjoyed.
- Don’t bring store-bought items. Since this may be unavoidable in some cases, make sure you transfer your store-bought item to a serving dish BEFORE bringing it to the potluck. Do not bring it in its original container, and do not transfer it to a serving dish at church. Then everyone will know you “cheated.” I once brought store-bought cookies to a church potluck and placed them on a serving dish in the church kitchen. After the dinner, someone (it may have even been the pastor…ahem…) observed that he thought ladies should make homemade dishes for a potluck. In his opinion, bought items detracted from the whole point of a potluck. I tried to agree with him without giving away the fact that I had “cheated” by not making something myself.
- Make something you like. Since potluck dinners usually have more than enough food, you may very well be eating your leftover food for the next week, so be sure it’s something you enjoy.
- Place your dish as close to the beginning of the serving line as possible. While most buffet tables are organized according to food categories–meats, breads, sides, desserts–be sure your dish is as close to the front of its category as is feasible. This rule is based on the assumption that people are generally more likely to take a scoop from the first dishes on the table than from the dishes that follow. By the time they reach the end of the table, their plates are so full that your dish is passed over. In that case, you’ll be eating your potluck dish for lunch tomorrow. (see rule #2)
- Don’t bring anything you’re ashamed to admit is yours. Inevitably, some well-intentioned friend or relative will ask you which dish you brought so they can try it (or perhaps avoid it, as the case may be). Be sure you can point out your dish without feeling like crawling into the darkest corner to hide.
- Arrive early. This allows you to accomplish rule #3 without being conspicuous. If you’re running in at the last minute, it may be necessary to mount a covert operation to ensure that your dish is front and center. What happens to the dish you move is up to you, but make sure you don’t get caught. Coming early also helps to minimize your chances of being stuck with leftovers (if you neglected to heed rule #2) as it’s easier for folks to take a scoop from your dish if your food is actually on the buffet table when the serving line starts moving. An early arrival can also be helpful if you failed to follow rule #4 as you won’t have to parade your food in front of an already moving buffet line while your Aunt Mavis loudly announces, “Oh, Elisabeth, put your dish here. What did you bring?”
- Bring something tried and true. A church dinner is no place for experimentation. It may even be necessary to do a “trial run” a couple weeks in advance to ensure that your cheesecake is actually acceptable. This requires advanced planning. My first potluck as a wife caught me off-guard. I resorted to bringing a crock pot dish of what I happened to have on hand–pork chops, peas, and cream of mushroom soup. This pathetic dish of shriveled, overcooked peas and pork violated rules #2 & #4. It didn’t help that I came late (which broke rule #5). At least I had made something myself (yay for rule #1). Didn’t that count for anything?
- Slice your dessert. No one wants to be the first to take a piece from the untouched pie or sheet cake. It slows down the buffet line, the first piece is always hard to get out, it’s awkward to cut just one piece and not the entire pie or cake, and who wants to try a dessert that no one else was brave enough to try? Hence, if your dessert is not pre-sliced, you will end up taking an entire cherry pie home. ***Note to self: If you reach the dessert section of the potluck, and realize you forgot rule #7, serve yourself a “pity piece” of your dessert to get the ball rolling. Hopefully those coming after you will follow your lead and take a piece of your dessert.
- Bring the appropriate serving utensils. While this may seem like an unnecessary rule, I’m guessing many a potluck dish has been relegated to tomorrow’s leftovers due to a missing serving utensil. What’s worse, the neighboring potluck dish may become leftovers when someone steals its serving utensil to dip a scoop of your dish. How unfair! As a side note, be sure to label your dishes and spoons with your last name so they don’t join the orphaned dishes from last year’s potluck in the cupboards of the church kitchen.
As you can see, church potluck dinners have proven to be a source of trauma in my life. But, now that I’m armed with these Rules of Engagement, I can face the “Potluck Dinner Foe” with some measure of confidence. (Honestly, I still tremble a bit at the mention of a potluck dinner.)