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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Potluck best practices

In early December I began what I'm calling my Potluck Initiative.* I realized that I always enjoy having people over for dinner, but I didn't get around to doing it often enough -- so I'm now having folks over every Thursday night. Somehow, giving it a name and a day of the week allowed me to do an end-run around my procrastination by changing the question from "Should I have people over for dinner?" to "Who should I have over for dinner next Thursday?"

I think it's worth devoting one night a week to the Potluck Initiative because it's one of my favorite social formats. If you have people over for a big party, it takes some doing, and you might not get the chance to talk to each of the guests for very long. Going out to eat is easy, but gets expensive fast, and you start to get anxious glances from the waitstaff if you linger for much more than an hour. Bars can be fun, but they're often loud and aren't cheap, either. Throwing a potluck is easy, cheap, and the dinner table naturally lends itself to leisurely conversation.

I've had five potlucks so far, and it's been a lot of fun. Each week I invite people I know from different settings -- college, grad school, work, DC Listening Lounge, etc. -- who don't know each other. This helps keep the conversation from falling into familiar ruts and gives everybody a chance to meet new people. Having everyone around a table avoids some potential pitfalls of trying to mix groups of friends.

You probably also enjoy having people over for dinner, and don't get around to doing it enough. Well, you should start a Potluck Initiative -- I'll let you set up your own franchise for a low fee. So far, I've established the following best practices for hosting a potluck:
  • Invite 4 or 5 people. Three guests is the minimum, both in terms of conversation and food. Once you hit six or more guests, however, the table is likely to split into sub-conversations and there'll be more dishes than you need. Four or five guests is just right. (Also, my table doesn't seat more than 6 people.)
  • Ensure people know no more than one other guest. Assuming you'd also like to mix it up in terms of groups of friends, it's okay to have two people who already know each other, but if you have more than that, it can get the conversation onto parochial topics that leave others idly pushing the food around on their plates.
  • Invite people about a week ahead of time. A potluck isn't the kind of thing you plan far in advance, so a week out seems about right, and still allows enough time to find other guests if folks are busy.
  • Send a confirmation email a day in advance. This ensures that everyone knows what they're bringing. But it also means that everyone has each others' email addresses, so they can send subsequent emails like "Good to meet you last night, here's that adorable slow loris video I was talking about."
  • Find easy recipes. As the host, I always make the main dish, but you don't need to make something fancy, and using recipe you're familiar with keeps it low-stress. I rely on lasagna, mac & cheese casserole, soups, and a couple other dishes.
  • Assign dishes ahead of time. Don't leave the variety of food to chance, figure out who's planning to bring what, and if anyone is vegetarian/vegan/etc. I generally present the options as side dish, salad, bread, and wine. Bread and wine are good for singles and people coming straight from work, while salad and sides are better for couples. I try to figure out what I'm making ahead of time so that the guests can coordinate (e.g. find the right wine pairing for mac & cheese).
  • Keep a spreadsheet. No, seriously, I actually do this. It's got a list of people I'd like to invite, as well as records of past potlucks. I can see if we had lasagna last time someone came, or calculate that the average time of adjournment has been 11:36 PM.

I'll provide updates to these best practices later, as I hone them through subsequent iterations. Meanwhile, I think we all recognize that you can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, so let me know how your Potluck Initiative goes!

* In my head, this is a nod to the mumblecore film Funny Ha Ha. In one scene, the rudderless main character makes a to-do list that includes "Fitness Initiative!" as one of the items.


seeligd said...

Awesome, Teague! What an excellent idea. Did you ever read the (I think) nytimes article on spacing people who don't know each-other out around the table so they don't fall into familiar conversations, and/or so quiet people talk more? Seems like it's not a big problem though if you're doing 4-5 people. Can't wait for the next time I'm over at your place for some lasagne! :)

zach said...

I'm really studying this list, being a big potluck fan myself. Is there any comment regarding gender balance worthy of making it onto the best practices list?