In my early twenties, I moved from my hometown of Portland, Ore. to Philadelphia. It was a big move, made even more challenging by the fact that I only knew one person my own age in the entire city (as lovely as it was to be near my 86-year-old grandmother, eating dinner with her at 5 p.m. did not constitute a social life). I knew that my success in Philly was going to hinge in large part on finding friends as quickly as possible. So I got involved.
I hooked up with a cycling club (though my skills on two wheels were shaky at best), joined the Unitarian church down the street and started attending a book club. The reason I was most drawn to these particular gathering points? They all included regular potlucks.
And my plan worked. Gathering with people over food gives you an immediate starting place. Even if you have nothing obvious in common, you can talk about what you brought and how good Sarah’s pasta is. Soon enough, conversation starts to flow and suddenly, you’re building a community over a plate of carrot sticks and hummus.
Here are some of the things I learned about being a good potluck guest during those early Philadelphia days.
- Always bring an appropriate serving utensil for your dish with you. It means that you can easily put your contribution down on the table without pulling the host away from their own conversation.
- Potluck dishes should be ready to eat upon arrival. Don’t show up with a dish that needs tons of assembly or oven time, particularly if you don’t know the host well.
- No soup! Potluck food should be plate-based. Unless you plan on bringing a stash of disposable bowls and spoons, it’s best to stick to food that can be eaten off a plate with a fork.
- If you don’t have time to cook, there’s a world of store-bought food that is acceptable to bring to a potluck. Cheese and crackers, a veggie tray from the produce section or a box of cookies from the in-house bakery are all good options.
- Make a label. In this age of rampant food allergies, it’s best to quickly jot down the ingredients of your dish so that people can determine whether it’s okay for them to eat it.
- Finally, always make the first cut. I have found that bread, cakes and pies will sit uneaten on the potluck table if they haven’t been precut. However, if you cut that pie into wedges before adding to the buffet, it will be noshed on in no time.
Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. She grew up attending weekly potlucks and even had a potluck wedding. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her first cookbook will be published by Running Press in Spring 2012.