The mental image of a potluck — a stuffy church banquet room, the smell of cheap coffee and rows of unknown casseroles sitting atop old dish towels — has been transformed. Potlucks are not only a recession rescuer, but are also serving up a trendy new way to entertain.
Some business dinners, organizations and clubs, social gatherings with friends and families, and even weddings, showers and holidays are adorning invitations with “potluck-style” and a dish sign-up list rather than ordering from a caterer or visiting a restaurant.
Originating in the 16th century, the “luck of the pot” was known as a whatever-is-in-the-kitchen approach for a communal meal. Later, Irish women would grab their miscellaneous ingredients and cook together, putting it all in one pot.
Although the meal plan has evolved, the sense of everyone collaborating and enjoying good food together has stuck.
Roseburg mom Sara Raynor appropriately calls these get-togethers “cooperative dinners.” Raynor and her husband’s extended families organize these themed potluck-style dinners for every holiday, graduation, birthday and anniversary.
“Everyone likes the cooperative dinners because none of us have the time or the money to cook for everyone, but we love getting together,” said Raynor. “I never spend more than $10 to $15, a bit more if I make a main dish or a very fancy dessert, but I am not obligated to,” she added.
In planning a cooperative dinner, the date, location and theme are set and then a group email goes out with a dish sign-up list. In addition to the classic holiday themes or brunch theme, the Raynor family has also done a taco salad or chef salad bar, in which everyone brings an item to go in the bowl.
Small one- to two-bite tapas plates with an international theme was a potluck hit for Robyn Jones of Sutherlin. “This was so fun to do and it would be fabulous for a wedding,” she said.
A Roseburg wife, mother of two and budding cake designer, Jill Fay agrees that doing a themed potluck avoids random and repeat dishes.
A get-together with a large number of guests — like the 37 members of the Raynor family — has an increased chance of people needing specialty diets such as gluten, low-carb or diabetic. Raynor said that the cooperative dinner allows everyone to come together and know that they will have something to eat that fits their diet.
With two months to plan their wedding and a lack of available caterers, Roseburg’s Valerie and Brook Reinhard decided to have a potluck-style wedding reception. “It was really fun and worked out really well,” Valerie Reinhard said.
Inside the couple’s wedding invitations, a small card identified whether the guest was selected to bring a main course or side dish. Last names starting with A through M were to bring an entree, while N through Z were to bring an accompaniment.
Valerie Reinhard said that in addition to saving a bundle of money, the potluck’s 150 guests ensured a ton of food.
“There was such a huge variety, from Mexican dishes to more traditional potluck foods to some awesome Italian,” she said.
This trend is carrying on throughout the family as the Reinhards’ cousin is planning the same style reception, but will also ask for each recipe to be put together in a book for the bride and groom.
“I wish I would have thought of that,” Valerie Reinhard said.
Next time you are thinking of entertaining, opt for the pot. In addition to saving money, effort and time, cleanup is usually easy and you get to sample new recipes.
Furthermore, in a fast-paced society, a potluck or coordinated dinner allows you the chance to experience a favorite American tradition — slowing down and savoring time with friends and family without arguing over who is going to foot the bill.
Pick a theme for your potluck
2. Pasta bar: Either each person can bring a different pasta and sauce, or one person can make a few different types of pasta (spaghetti, penne, farfalle, etc.) and then others can sign up to bring things to go in the pasta such as vegetables, meats, sauces and cheeses. This is usually a crowd pleaser and kids love it, too.
3. Baked or mashed potato bar: Someone provides all the potatoes and others sign up for basics such as butter, salt, pepper and sour cream; cheeses such as cheddar, bleu cheese or Parmesan; herbs such as red pepper and chives; meats such as chili, crumbled bacon, chopped ham or smoked salmon; vegetables such as scallions, corn, peas, tomatoes or avocado; and sauces like barbecue, salsa, alfredo, nacho cheese or ranch. A potato can go a long way. If you want a more elegant look to mashed potatoes, serve them in martini glasses.
4. Salad bar: Everyone either brings a different type of salad (potato, garden, shrimp, coleslaw, etc.) or a larger salad is featured (taco, chef) and others bring the fixings and dressings.
5. Soup swap: Bring your favorite or homemade soup. Don’t forget chips, toppings and bread.
6. Homemade cooking: Everyone brings a favorite homemade comfort dish and also supplies the recipe.
7. Design your waffle or pancakes: Someone provides the waffles or pancakes while others sign up to bring all the toppings, such as whipped cream, caramel, fruits, peanut butter, jams, granola, graham crackers, syrup, candies and more.
Don’t forget to sign someone up for the plates, napkins and utensils, as well as beverages.
Ensure good fortune at potlucks with these safety tips
• Hot foods should be kept at an internal temperature of 140 degrees or warmer. Use a food thermometer to check. Serve or keep food hot in chafing dishes, crock pots and warming trays.
• Cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees or colder. Keep cold foods refrigerated until serving time. If food is going to stay out on the buffet table longer than two hours, place plates of cold food on ice to retain the chill.
• Don’t add new food to an already filled serving dish. Instead, replace nearly empty serving dishes with freshly filled ones. Bacteria from people’s hands may have contaminated the food and starts to multiply at room temperature.
• Discard any perishables left out at room temperature for more than two hours.
• Never place cooked food back on the same plate or cutting board that held raw food.Sources: USDA Food and Safety Inspection Service, U.S. Food and Drug Administration