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Potluck Rules

Wednesday, July 26, 2006; F05

Potluck suppers, or now simply "potlucks," have evolved to the point where much chatter -- online and off -- is devoted to them. Along with the events, the "rules" guiding them have evolved as well. There are two distinct varieties of potlucks: large, organized affairs where people are openly called upon to contribute, often in a specific manner (bringing the wine, doing a dessert, that sort of thing), and the smaller, subtler kind of dinner or party invitation where the innocent question "May I bring something?" is met by an enthusiastic yes.

Obviously, all the rules don't apply all the time. And some may seem obvious or unnecessary -- or even downright unattractive. Read through them and adopt or discard at will.

FOR GROUP PARTIES

· Create a sign-up sheet listing exactly what you want. Include a companion list of non-food items to allow people who don't cook to help and to make sure you get items you need. Non-food items would include soft drinks, juice, utensils, paper goods, etc.

· Insist that people be specific. The less specific they are, the less likely they are to show up with something you want and/or need. The more specific they are, the less likely they are to duplicate what someone else is bringing.

· Be clear about the quantities that are required.

· Allow some overlap in case of no-shows.

· Be careful about using the alphabet to organize who brings what. If you don't notice that seven of the soccer team families' names begin with M, and you assign desserts to the letters K through P, you may be dooming your group to a diabetic coma.

FOR AT-HOME POTLUCKS

· Decide what you want and be specific. If you say "Bring what you'd like," you may wind up with a fondue fountain instead of a fruit platter.

· You, the host, should always assume responsibility for the main course so you know it will be there.

· If you don't want food, or don't want a particular person's food, have ready a list of non-food items that will make people feel helpful. A great thing for people to bring is ice -- they can pick it up on the way, and it's hard to have too much. You can also always say that flowers would be nice.

· Be prepared to return people's platters and bowls at the end of the party. Have your own supply of plastic containers ready.

FOR THE FOOD YOU BRING

· Label your dish so people know what it is and what's in it.

· Choose foods that are safe -- and tasty -- at room temperature.

· Think about food safety. For example, outdoors in the heat, vinegar-based dressings are a better choice than mayonnaise-based ones.

· Avoid arriving with something that requires "just 10 minutes in the oven" unless you've cleared it in advance with the host. You may be causing a traffic jam in the oven.

· Try to bring the food when it's freshly made. If you won't have time to make something right before an event, choose to bring a basket of assorted crackers, or perhaps a dessert that's best made ahead.

· Do consider the container. A nasty old plastic bowl just doesn't inspire the same enthusiasm as, say, a clean white ceramic dish nestled in a wicker basket.

· If it's the eleventh hour and you haven't made that salad you promised, head right for the supermarket and buy something prepared. Better to show up with a tub of coleslaw from the deli than to back out.

· If you do have to back out, call and let the organizer know.

· If all else fails, relax and just make something you like. It's not a competition, it's a party.

-- Stephanie Witt Sedgwick

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