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If you’re a true citizen of this great American nation, you’ll do two things this November. You’ll haul yourself into an election booth and vote for the next prez. And you’ll throw that most democratic of parties: the potluck.

Oh, the poor potluck! Maligned by etiquette experts as “not true entertaining.” Derided by foodies for its potential for producing 15 plates of brownies and not a single haricots vert. Branded as the sort of staid gathering favored only by church groups, commune members and folks who wear loose-fitting clothing made of hemp. 

All true, perhaps. But what’s also true is that the potluck is participatory: everyone brings something. It’s all about freedom: cook whatever you want (except lima bean casserole, please). It’s multi-cultural: a bowl of chili next to a dish of hummus next to a plate of spring rolls. And it’s like paying taxes (in a nice way): everyone’s dish contributes to the common good.

If America is a melting pot, that melting pot is on the table at a potluck party. If America is a tossed salad, that salad, too, is part of a potluck.

And aside from the fact that potlucks are democracy-in-action, they’re particularly suited to 21st-century American life. Many people don’t entertain because they don’t have the time (or inclination) to plan a menu, shop, cook and pull off a multiple-course meal for a crowd. Since a potluck divides the labor, it’s possible to entertain more people, more often. Thus will the potluck reduce our existential malaise (and our tendency to eat alone in front of the TV).

In short, the humble potluck might just be the thing that saves us.

Potlucking in Practice It’s important to realize that potluck entertaining exists along a continuum from the very structured to the very unstructured. Very structured potluck hosts plan a menu themselves then assign each dish to a guest. So, for example, if a host wants to create an Italian feast, she might tell one guest to bring antipasto; one to bring a wedding soup; one to bring cannoli; one to bring chianti. Then she provides the main course, a lovely timpano ala “Big Night.” If this sounds dictatorial, that’s because it is, at least a little. But hosts who value control and certainty opt for this kind of potluck.

Slightly less structured potluckers will invite their guests, ask them to RSVP, and when they do, they’ll ask each to bring a particular course— Joe will bring an appetizer, Mary will bring a vegetable, Sheila will bring dessert. That way, the host has some assurance that the meal will be balanced— though there’s always the question of whether Joe’s appetizer (pigs in blankets) will be the proper launch for the entrée (baby lamb chops with wild mushroom risotto). Incidentally, these two potlucking methods work best when the guest count numbers 10 or under— otherwise you’re entering a logistical twilight zone.

My husband and I like to live on the edge, so we go for the more unstructured (read: wild and crazy) form of potlucking. We provide beverages and a main dish— smoked turkey on the grill is our usual choice, along with portobello mushrooms or something vegetarian— and we ask our 20 to 30 guests to bring a side dish or dessert. Sure, it’s risky; there’s always the threat of those 15 plates of brownies. But there’s also the possibility of a variety of great concoctions— some old family recipes, some old standbys, and some dishes that demonstrate extraordinary effort. We’ve had potlucks in both of our previous homes in Kansas and Georgia, but had never thrown one here in Baltimore. So we picked a Sunday in September and sent out a flurry of e-mail invites.

What’s good about a potluck is that even when people don’t RSVP, you’re pretty sure you’re going to have enough food— because it’s BYOF, after all. So, although on the morning of the potluck we weren’t sure if we’d be hosting 15 guests or 30, we weren’t too worried about whether our 16-pound bird would feed the masses. (OK, we were a little worried, but at non-Thanksgiving times of the year, the selection of turkeys isn’t vast. A 16-pounder was the biggest bird we could find.) Steve had brined the turkey overnight and on Sunday morning he injected it with a secret potion (see recipe below) and placed it on the grill about 11 a.m. Inside, we put both the leaves in our dining table, which created a 6-foot-long platform for the entrée and side dishes. I cleared the buffet of its usual assortment of tchotchkes and decreed that desserts should reside there. We set up wine and soda on the kitchen counter and stowed the beer and hard cider in a tub on the back deck. Also out back, we set up three tables for serious grazing.

I’d asked people to arrive by 4 p.m., figuring that we’d begin eating at 5. From my previous potluck experiences, I know you need to give stragglers (and their dishes) a window of about an hour to arrive before you ring the dinner bell— otherwise, everyone is eating dessert when someone shows up with a chip-n-dip. By 5 p.m., the dining room table was a marvel to behold. Alongside our platters of turkey and portobello mushrooms, there had materialized a curried sweet potato salad; caprese composed of heirloom tomatoes purchased at the city farmers’ market that morning; artichoke and green bean casserole; butternut squash and chicken over risotto; an orzo salad with sundried tomatoes; and a Thai cabbage salad known as Super Slaw.

In the “tall food” category, there were New Potato Stacks with Chili Oil. In the “down home” category, there were potatoes cooked with cabbage and bacon, a recipe from one friend’s mother in West Virginia. In the “classic potluck” category, another neighbor brought what she calls “cheesy poofs,” but what appeared to be broccoli and cheese squares. Perhaps the biggest hit of all were the lumpia, Filipino egg rolls filled with ground turkey and shrimp and topped with a sweet and sour sauce.

After Steve and I issued the call to arms, the guests took plates and utensils and walked clockwise slowly around the table (we’d removed the chairs for easier access), taking a spoonful of this, then a spoonful of that, oohing and aahing all the way. When people found their way outside again and settled down at the tables to dig in, every so often, someone would call out, “Who made (fill in the blank)?” “The (fill in the blank) is amazing!”

I’m not sure whether it was because the food was outstanding (it was), or whether people were just exceptionally hungry (several people had spent the day doing home repair— always a great hunger inducer). All I can say is that, by 6:15 p.m., the bowls, casserole dishes and platters were empty. Seriously: nary a scrap of food remained. I have to admit I was slightly saddened by the complete decimation of the turkey, as I had already envisioned the next day’s sandwich. The only part of the bird that remained were the scraps our friend had slipped into our cats’ dishes (they evidently don’t like potlucks).

Tryptophan didn’t seem to affect anyone. When we called people in for dessert— a blueberry sour cream pie (recipe compliments of the July 2002 issue of Style), a homemade apple pie with an incredibly light crust, a still-warm loaf of banana bread and a chocolate “starfish cake,” along with some decadent store-bought truffles— people had no trouble rousing themselves and working their way down the line again.

Everyone declared it the best potluck they’d ever attended. It was certainly the best one we’ve ever hosted. And I’m happy to report that my husband and I were ultimately left with one leftover, after a friend arrived late with his potluck contribution: a can of cream of mushroom soup. It’s in our pantry, awaiting an invitation to the next potluck.

Potluck 101

>> When inviting guests, be clear about what you’re going to provide and what you’d like them to bring.

>> Tell guests to arrive an hour before you plan to eat, giving stragglers (and their dishes) time to arrive.

>> Before the guests arrive, ready the tables where the food should be placed. If you’re having a good-sized crowd, you might need one area or table for the main dishes and one table for desserts.

>> If some of your guests are vegetarian, consider grouping all the vegetarian dishes together. Or, when people arrive with their dishes, ask them to write the name of the dish on a place card, mark a “V” on it if it’s vegetarian and put it in front of the dish on the table.

>> If you don’t have enough “real” plates and silverware, buy heavy-duty paper and plastic. Flimsy plates at a potluck are the worst.

>> Set up a staging area in the kitchen where people can put the last-minute touches on their dishes. Some folks will need to use the oven or microwave; others might need to stow stuff in the freezer or refrigerator, so make sure there’s enough room.

>> Keep extra serving utensils and platters, as well as trivets, at the ready. Also, put out salt and pepper on the table.

>> Set up the seating area away from the food table, leaving good access to the table.

>> I recommend asking guests to take home their leftovers (guests will offer them to you) in their dirty dishes. This avoids a protracted dish-washing and Tupperware-hunting session.

>> If you’re invited to a potluck, don’t feel like you have to make enough food for all of the guests. People usually only take a little bit of each dish, and there’s always plenty to go around.

>> The best dishes for a potluck are really whatever you feel like making (and certainly buying something is acceptable— no one is grading you).

>> Consider throwing a themed potluck: Mexican, Asian, or, in the case of Maryland Public Television personality Rhea Feiken, the annual “white trash” potluck. For the Fourth of July, you could ask people to bring dishes featuring the colors red, white and blue. Or you can do a great potluck brunch with guests bringing egg casseroles, muffins and fruits.

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