The Art of the Potluck Party

Ground rules and classic recipes to help you bring your best
September 25, 2019 Updated: September 26, 2019

My mother was the potluck queen. Her contributions to communal culinary fetes in south Louisiana always took center table, showcasing her Cajun heritage and her personal credo of generosity and abundance.

Even today, years after she left us for the great kitchen beyond, there are people who tell tales of the savory oven dressing she contributed to the college Thanksgiving potluck, the crawfish cornbread she brought to church socials, or the golden pecan pies she gifted to her ceramic class luncheons.

Of course, one of those semi-annual ceramic class award luncheons also became the scene of her biggest potluck disaster. 

The Most Important Rule of the Potluck

One year, Mom opted to bring both a pecan pie and a dish of spicy shrimp-and-sausage jambalaya. Since the recreation center kitchen had a balky, unreliable microwave, she decided to bring her jambalaya already warm and spooned into a slow cooker.

My sister secured the foil-covered, oblong pecan pie—all nicely browned and fragrant—on the floor of the passenger seat of Mom’s giant Oldsmobile, while the slow cooker full of jambalaya was tucked in a low box in the giant trunk. I can still hear her saying, “You know, I kept thinking I could smell the jambalaya all the way up in the front seat.”

Yes, after a few fishtailing turns, she could indeed smell the jambalaya. The top-heavy slow cooker fell over the side of the box, the lid unhinged, and saucy, spicy, sticky jambalaya spilled all over the trunk.

Mom arrived at her destination and gave a slight beep of the horn for her younger and more able-bodied friends to come out and help her carry her prized dishes inside. She popped the trunk, to the horror and dismay of the helpers (and herself). The story goes that Mom had to dissuade them from scooping all that wasted shrimp, sausage, and rice back into the toppled-over cooker and pretending it never happened! 

Hundreds of dollars worth of ruined ingredients and car-cleaning later, we all learned the most important rule of the potluck: If your dish doesn’t get there intact, it doesn’t count. 

This is extremely important to remember, as we plunge into the prime season of covered-dish celebrations large and small. From October to December, there are back-to-school gatherings; post-summer-hiatus book club, choir, and school booster events, sports-viewing parties; and of course, the obligatory office and community Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year potlucks. You’ll want your dish to look good, taste good, and arrive safely.

You’ll want your dish to look good, taste good, and arrive safely—unlike Mom’s jambalaya. (Shutterstock)

History of the Potluck

The term “potluck” has come to refer to a cooperative meal where everyone partaking contributes a dish to the communal menu. By these terms, the first Thanksgiving—whether you count the one at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 or the one at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565—could be considered a potluck, with colonial settlers and native peoples sharing victuals. 

However, numerous food history resources date the word to the 1500s, a time when an unannounced visitor or traveler might be invited into a home to share the luck of the pot—that is, whatever was cooking on the hearth. Sharing a meal that a resident family would be eating, without them putting on airs and fancy fixings for company, came to be known as taking pot luck.

By the mid-1800s, the word had evolved to mean a meal to which all participants contribute something. The luck in potluck now refers to the fact that one never really knows what dishes might show up at such a feast. 

One can assume that the practice of the potluck—either the original meaning or the modern meaning—has an ancient history that far predates recorded custom. After all, what could be more natural than sharing food with others?

Cowboys in the western United States are credited with popularizing the modern practice of potluck suppers, and the spread of the concept can be attributed to the sheer efficiency of such a meal. If everyone contributes a dish, no one person has to do all the work, and each person can contribute according to their own talents and pocketbook. Instant party!

Do’s and Don’ts

Potlucks now pop up everywhere, from houses of worship to office parties to extended family gatherings and soccer team fundraisers. The meal can be a hearty indoor affair in the dead of winter or an outdoor barbecue at the peak of summer, a feast for 40 or a supper for 16. Whatever parameters exist, there are still a few essential elements to a successful potluck:

The host or the host’s designee is the organizer.

Even with the freewheeling, “surprise us” atmosphere of a potluck, someone has to make sure there’s enough table and countertop space to accommodate dishes, room in the fridge or cooler for things that must be kept cold, and power strips for slow cookers, as well as all the essentials for dining. Plates, cups, napkins, serving utensils, potholders, and trivets can be contributed by guests or provided by the host, but these are not optional things.

If you’re a guest and your dish requires bowls or soup mugs, be sure to ask the event organizer if you should bring them, or if someone is already contributing bowls. Likewise, if you’re the host and you only have a small lunch-sized cooler, you need to buy or borrow one that can accommodate drinks. And don’t skimp on the ice!  

Make a sign-up sheet.

Does your office party for 50 need five different kinds of salsa and three different types of macaroni and cheese? Maybe so. Does your potluck for 12 friends from high school need three chicken salads? Absolutely not. A sign-up sheet lets guests know that their contributions will be appreciated (nobody wants to be the guy who shows up with supermarket potato salad when the potato salad queen has an overflowing cut crystal bowl of the stuff at the same table) and that there will be a good mix of salads, sides, entrees, and desserts.

Don’t be afraid to actually list items like soft drinks, dinner rolls, butter, condiments, and paper goods on the sign-up sheet. Such things are needed and give non-cooks in your crowd an easy out. 

Bring just enough.

The temptation to bring food for an army is always strong. Resist the urge. Unless you’re providing a centerpiece dish—say, a ham or turkey—you can feel very comfortable bringing a casserole that feeds 12–16 to a party of 30 people. Assuming everyone partakes of everything available, a sampling of 30 dishes will result in each guest grabbing a spoonful of each dish.  

Think balance.

If the sign-up sheet is filled with heavy, rich dishes such as lasagna, barbecue brisket hash, and bacon-studded macaroni and cheese, then a few guests should be encouraged to bring veggie salads or just plates of seasonal fruit. Platters of grapes tucked at each end of the table will add visual lightness as well as culinary balance to the spread, without breaking anyone’s bank account.

Healthy fruit platter
A fresh fruit platter adds welcome contrast to rich, heavy dishes. (Shutterstock)

Consider a theme. 

Yes, the variety of dishes offered give the potluck its charm. That said, themed dinners can be great fun. Deciding to give your potluck an ethnic theme—think Mexican, Italian, Thai—or just a concept, like a Barbecue Bash or Kitsch Cuisine, can prompt lots of creative thinking on the part of guests.

One of my favorite types of potlucks is Just Desserts. The host offers a simple main dish, such as sub sandwiches or a hearty soup or casserole, and a side salad. Then guests are asked to bring their favorite desserts, resulting in a smorgasbord of cakes, pies, cookies, and other sweet temptations.

Bring the right dish, in the right dish, at the right time.

Your dish should be ready to serve. Don’t show up at a potluck with food that you must cook or otherwise prepare. Transferring a closed container of something into a prettier serving dish or into a slow cooker to maintain temperature is fine. Preparing sushi on the spot (when there are no plans for a potluck sushi bar) isn’t.

Consult with your host if you need refrigerator space, a microwave session, or any other special accommodations. Oh, and don’t leave your dish to “get it later,” which puts the burden of cleaning or disposing of it on the host.

My mother would have done well to carry her jambalaya in a sealed container, then transfer it to the slow cooker at the ceramic class luncheon. But then we wouldn’t have her cautionary tale, recalled by me and my siblings whenever any one of us is required to “bring a dish.”

The greatest tribute to her cooking prowess and lamentations over her spilled jambalaya came at her funeral. As people walked into the family home with condolences, stories, and dishes, one of Mom’s friends walked in with her adult son in tow. In his gloved hands was a giant slow cooker full of hot jambalaya.

“He has to go to work,” she said. “But I made him come with me to hold the jambalaya pot on his lap. Your mama would haunt me if I spilled it all over my car like she did!” 

RECIPE: Shrimp and Sausage Jambalaya

RECIPE: Superb Cheese Grits Casserole

RECIPE: Ms. B’s Potato Salad

RECIPE: Monica’s Heavenly Hash Cake

Louisiana native Belinda Hulin Crissman writes cookbooks and food articles from her adopted hometown of Atlantic Beach, Fla. She’s the author of five cookbooks, including “Roux Memories: A Cajun-Creole Love Story with Recipes.” When she’s not writing, you’ll find her scoping out old and new culinary delights.