What Can I Bring?

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

My life is a potluck parade. The admission to any event: a full platter, dish or tray. Cookies, fruit salads, wrap sandwiches, passed hors d'oeuvres -- just tell me what you need and I'm ready.

One week in June my family went to three parties, and three times I whipped out the platters. Baby showers, retirement parties, class parties, team parties, even dinner parties -- all of these invitations lead up to the fateful question: "What can I bring?" And even people inviting me to dinner at their home are not shy about suggesting something, stopping only slightly short of asking for the main course.

My initiation into potlucks came early -- 1984, a hot summer in New York. I was 19, still in school, and my girlfriends and I had a summer sublet in SoHo. We felt like we were really "in," with our spacious loft on a street just seedy enough to have character -- little cafes mixed with Italian cheese shops and bakeries -- even if we were really just borrowing someone else's life.

Along with the nifty apartment came an invitation to the building's version of a block party -- cocktails on the roof. As the residents gathered for the late afternoon party, not a single guest arrived empty-handed. Artfully arranged platters of fresh mozzarella drizzled with olive oil appeared. Thick slices of Tuscan bread and handmade breadsticks were piled high in a basket. We thought it was all so perfect.

I didn't know it was a sign of things to come. When I hit the adult world again, this time as a resident and not a visitor, I soon found out that almost every invitation comes with a request. With the notable exception of catered parties and those held in restaurants, almost every event is a version of the potluck. The size, scope and circumstances of the party or the host don't seem to matter. I've arrived at mini-mansions carrying my offerings just as many times as I've added my dish to the buffet table set up on a playground. At this point in my very adult life -- husband, kids, job and plenty of potlucks -- I can close the clasp on a pearl necklace with one hand while balancing a tray of shrimp canapes in the other.

I think we all know why the potluck has pretty much replaced the dinner party as the entertaining style of choice. I sometimes like to think it's a sign of revived community spirit, but I'm willing to accept that we're all so time-pressed that to entertain we have to divide and conquer. The host isn't responsible for everything, but instead is more of a group leader, organizing the site and the event.

My mother had taught me that the hostess did everything, but I had to relent at my own parties as well. My insistence on guests' being guests and not caterers made people nervous. They just didn't seem capable of showing up empty-handed. Watermelons kept appearing, needing to be sliced and laid out. Hors d'oeuvres needed room on the buffet. My guests would thrust a plate of cookies at me saying they just had to bring something.

I gave in. I got with the program. If people were going to bring food, I might as well manage the onslaught right from the beginning. It wasn't as if the food were bad. Most of it was great. So now I'm embracing the inevitable. You want to bring food, who am I to stop you? Bring on the bruschetta, the platters of brownies, the grilled vegetables. Do yourself proud. There's room at my table.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company