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Ramona King

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Four easy tips that will help you host the South's best Fourth of July potluck

Rather than sweating behind the grill or washing countless dishes, we're taking different approach for the Fourth of July and celebrating with a potluck-style party

Potlucks are about inclusion and creativity. Whether you’re hosting or attending, they always provide an easy way to lure new and old friends looking to unwind together.  If you’re hosting, you get to spend time with your guests rather than worrying about cooking the perfect meal. As a guest, you can share a favorite family recipe or an edible masterpiece with others. They even serve as confidence-boosters for those of us who haven’t spent much time in front of the stove recently.

Potlucks have been around for centuries. From innkeepers storing their leftovers in a pot for weary travelers to nosh on upon arrival (hence, “luck of the pot”), to modern-day social events centered around food, potlucks have a place in nearly every era and culture. Helping you configure the food, drinks, decor and lawn games, these simple tips will have your next potluck streamlined and stress-free.

The Food
The great thing about throwing a potluck party is that virtually any culinary creation can show up. It’s kind of like opening presents on Christmas morning.

But the uncertainties carry some risks, too. Will five orzo salads end up on the table? Perhaps! Or, maybe everyone will bring a main dish and the party will be without sides.

One way to combat the unknown is by assigning categories to each of your guests: He’s responsible for the appetizers, she’ll handle the Southern-influenced side, and they’ll bring the entree, family recipe, cocktail, boozeless beverage or desserts — use your imagination as you manage. Come up with the menu and make sure guests commit to bringing a dish a few days ahead of the party. 

Another idea is to let each of your guests choose their own category. This idea works perfectly for a Fourth of July potluck, as each guest can bring their favorite patriotic-themed dish to the party. When it comes to the kitchen, everyone has strengths and weaknesses. For Jonathan Insetta, owner and chef of restaurants
Restaurant Orsay, Black Sheep, BLK SHP at Intuition and the in-development Bellwether (all based in Jacksonville, Florida), potlucks are about family, friends, food and love.

“For me, it’s more about good-memories food than trying to do cerebral, technique-driven food,” said Insetta, who trained at the
Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York. “I typically bring macaroni and cheese, collard greens, fried chicken and biscuits — just homemade things made with care, that take time.”

If you’re not sure which comfort food is your forte, treat your guests to one of Insetta’s down-home crowd-pleasers — this easy greens recipe. “It’s a good dish for a potluck because it has a ton of soul,” the chef explained. “It also holds up well due to the structural integrity of the greens and is an often-overlooked dish. When collards are done well, everyone can relate to them.”

Decorations
Remember, potlucks are casual, so keep decor low-key to match. Dress the tables with the type of eclectic vintage linens that you can find at any thrift store or yard sale. Buy small Mason jars and fill them with an array of wildflowers picked around your neighborhood or purchased at a local farmers market. The food is the main focus of any great Southern potluck, so keep it clean and simple.

Game Time
The table is set, the food has arrived and a sense of calm takes over the backyard. Now what? A little bit of friendly competition can be the perfect way to break the ice and get your guests mixing it up. Leave Trivial Pursuit cards around the tables or set out a few lawn games to keep everyone engaged. You can make a D-I-Y ring toss using recycled wine bottles and a few other household items, or put together your own giant wooden yard dice. Weather permitting, outdoor games like cornhole and backyard Jenga are fun for guests of all ages. 

The Drinks
A proper Fourth of July potluck will have a few non-alcoholic drinks like lemonade on hand, but cocktails are  essential — especially ones that are red, white or blue. 

Whether you like a boozy or non-alcoholic version, a good punch is easy to make and will keep your guests' spirits high throughout the party. Twists on refreshing Arnold Palmers or a red sangria work particularly well this time of year. If punches aren’t your thing and you want to keep the beverage selection simple, think about having one signature cocktail, such as a bourbon prosecco spritzer, on the menu, and accompany it with bottles of water and cans of soda. 

Mark Schettler — bartender, general manager of Bar Tonique in New Orleans and President of the United States Bartender’s Guild (USBG) New Orleans’ Chapter — said there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to prepping punches for a potluck.

“The number one thing is to have the whole thing batched and ready to go by the time you get there,” Schettler said. “Nobody wants to make cocktails at a party they’re not working. One of the easiest punches to make is a classic punch; one part sour, two parts sweet, three parts alcohol, four parts weak and spice because it’s nice.”

Photo credit (Food and decoration): Maura Friedman
Photo credit (Games): Keith S. Aul Twitter
Photo credit (Drinks): Ramona King

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