Potluck : the art of the effortless party

10:19 AM

Growing up, big gatherings and parties always fell into two categories :

The formal type where the host does everything and ends up exhausted and glad when everybody finally leaves.
And the fun, casual potluck where everybody brings something and nobody bears the whole responsibility to make it a great event.

They obviously both have their merit, and place even though a potluck can be suited to a formal event too.

As a kid I liked potlucks and picnic more than I liked the big sit down dinners, but that was mostly because my family was making every Summer and early Fall parties a picnic affair where we could run wild outdoor and not have to be dressed up in poofy dresses (I hated and still hate these).

When I moved to India, I realised that in India there are two category of home gathering too :

The more formal one where the hostess does everything and is under the social obligation to cook everything from scratch to show off, and do the service while everybody else eat.
And the friendly casual one that ends up with someone, usually the host ordering take out for everyone.

The difference that always got me between the European style and Indian style though is not in the whole formal and informal style differences (they are super subtle anyway). What still bugs me to absolutely no end with the Indian approach to parties is that you serve the food last as a cue to make your guests leave and everybody wolfs down whatever you slaved to produce in the kitchen or paid for as quickly as they could before calling it a night.

In Europe we bond and connect over food, not before eating. Warmth and magic happens while people eat and share stories at the same time. If you've never tried it, I urge you to give it a go, you'll love it.

Didn't you say this post was about Potlucks? 

Yes, yes I did! And that is because in our busy lives I seriously think it's the only way to go to have a good time with your friends. 

I belong to a group of friends, all European ladies married to Indians, and we take turns hosting potluck lunches on weekends, we usually end up throwing about 5-6 of them a year. 
The picture that illustrates this blog post was taken last May when we got together with our hubbies for a Cheese and Wine tasting potluck. The cheese was brought by a French friend who got it all from France. 

In true European tradition, we all gather at around 12.30pm and immediately start feasting. The feast last a couple of hours with us first digging into salads and appetisers while sipping wine and ends up with us chit chatting over cake and sweets 3-4 hours later (sometimes with a cup of tea).

Ok, so how does this Potluck thing work?

The concept is really simple : One person acts as the host providing the venue, a few drinks and one dish. 
The other guests all bring something to eat or drink (or both) and all the food is shared, and no one has the pressure to bring enough food to feed a crowd. 

This past weekend, I was the one hosting one of our Potluck events, the excuse for it (though really we don't need one) was that I still needed to have everybody over as a housewarming since we moved into our new flat last April

As the host, I provided my table and home, and bought the wine. I made a pasta salad and some roast chicken legs food-wise. Enough to make 5-6 big servings, but since we are talking potluck, that same amount fed more people and I still had leftovers. 
All of my guests brought something, mostly salads because the weather is perfect for them at the moment. 

All in all we were 12 adults and 10 kids, needless to say that if we ever went with the traditional formal way of "The hostess does everything" this would have been exhausting for me. 

But with a potluck, everybody gets to enjoy equally, plus it is the occasion for us to exchange recipes as we sample what everybody brought. 

Ok, got it! So what shall I keep in mind when throwing or attending a potluck? 

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that it is supposed to be fun. No pressure to produce a gourmet meal, or brag about the amount of time spent in the kitchen. This is the mindset you need to get started. 
Here are a few other tips to keep in mind : 

1) Don't cook for a huge crowd. Yes you may end up with close to 20 guests in your home, but you do not need to produce a dish that will feed all 20 people. That is the beauty of the system. People will want to sample all the dishes, like they would at a hotel bunch buffet, therefor never taking a regular serving of anything on offer. 

2) If you are the host, you act as the coordinator. This means that people will come to you asking what type of dish they should bring. It's ok to tell them things like "I think I have enough main courses dishes, can you bring a dessert?" 
You can also ask people to bring drinks if you'd rather split the financial burden. Potlucks are all about coordinating between all the guests. 

3) The food is the main event. Unlike an Indian event, the food is the star, the entire party revolve around having fun eating, do not have all your guests bring all the food, and then make them survive for an hour or two on conversation and salty munchies. The food is meant to be enjoyed along with conversation and time should be taken eating it. 

4) It's ok if your table is too small. Unlike a formal sit down meal, potlucks are meant to be casual, so hold off the fine bone china plates, and silverware, chances are you will not own enough plates. Get eco-friendly disposable plates instead and make sure there are alternate sitting spaces all around your home. 
My table is a 6 seaters one, and we were 22 people kids included, some ate on the sofa, some on the balcony, some standing, and we all moved around a lot never sitting in the same spot all the time. 

5) Potlucks celebrate team work. This means it is more than fine to accept help or offer help. As a host don't be a hero and claim you can manage the dishes, the service, the prep or whatever else. It's all in communal spirit. A spill somewhere in your home? If one of your guests offer to mops it, let them do it. If someone asks where you keep the drinking glass, just tell them. And do not feel embarrassed if someone offers to help with the dishes, this is how it works. 

6) You aren't here to make an impression. Potlucks aren't a display of power, wealth, skills and keeping faces. Potlucks are for people to come together and share. 
This means that if you suck at cooking, or don't have the time, it's more than fine to bring something ready made or store bought to the party, if others judge you for it, they aren't in the Potluck spirit either. 

7) Take it slow. I said it before, but potlucks aren't event that need to be rushed. It's a feast, and that means people take their time to eat and connect. 3-4 hours to eat and talk at the same time is not unrealistic. Potlucks celebrate the art of relaxing and feeling warm and cosy. The Danes have a word for that feeling : Hygge. And potlucks are as "hyggelig" as can be. 

If you ask me, a Potluck lunch in company of good friends makes everything better, I urge everybody to try it at least once. We are constantly under pressure to be performant, shine and be productive. We really need to do away with that crap at parties and events and take time to reconnect with friends instead of trying to impress them. 

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  1. Y'know, I have never been to anything even remotely like a potluck in Nepal or India!
    The closest thing I've ever seen to a potluck in India or Nepal are those huge buffets at weddings an embassy events here (which I loathe because the food is always mediocre to truly bad). It sounds like a great idea especially if you have guests from different regions to taste all the different foods of South Asia!

    1. I don't think the concept of potluck is really a thing at all in India. A shame because this is the best way to sample different food, as you said, in a diverse group, it could be an opportunity to taste dishes from all over the subcontinent.

      I hate these buffets at big event too, it's always the same crap : Dal makhani (not even the good one), dal fry, butter chicken, a veg and non veg biryani that is dry, a manchurian something dish with hakka noodles on the side and the usual roti/naan/papads and a few tomato slices and onions as garnish. If any of it was even flavourful and cooked well I wouldn't mind, but it's usually not.

      When it comes to house hosted parties, I don't mind cooking the whole meal IF everybody can sit down at a table (meaning limited to 6 people in my home) and IF people were actually treating the food with respect, not just that mandatory meal they are owed for coming to your house and need to be wolfed down in 15 minutes before saying goodbye and leaving.


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