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 sweating behind the grill or washing countless dishes. 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.
A communal gathering where everyone brings a dish to contribute, 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 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 hor d’oeuvres, she’ll handle the Southern-influenced side, and they’ll bring the entree, family recipe, cocktail, boozeless beverage — use your imagination as you manage.
Another idea is to let each of your guests choose their own category. 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.”
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.
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.
A proper Southern potluck will have a few non-alcoholic drinks like lemonade and lavender-mint iced tea on hand, but cocktails are an essential as well. 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.”
Southern Smoked Collard Greens
As adapted by Jacksonville, Florida’s Black Sheep Chef Jonathan Insetta
Hands On Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours
4 pounds collard greens (remove stems, cut into 1-inch strips)
3 shallots, sliced thin
3 cups chicken stock or broth
3 tablespoons honey
1 head peeled garlic
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 smoked ham hocks
1/2 pound bacon, cut into small strips
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 pound butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot over medium heat, add oil and bacon and render until halfway cooked. Add shallots until almost translucent then add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add vinegar, broth, honey, pepper flakes and ham hocks. Cook together for three minutes, taste and lightly season with salt and pepper. Add collards, cover the pot and simmer for an 1.5 hours (or until tender). When fully cooked and tender, adjust seasoning and mount the broth with butter.
Colonial Punch by Mark Schettler
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups aged Jamaican rum
1 1/4 cups Cognac
5 cups fresh brewed decaf black tea
3 pieces nutmeg
Put the sugar in a large pot on the stove. Peel the 10 lemons and place the peels in the pot and muddle into the sugar until fully submerged. Place the lid on the pot and leave overnight. The oils from the peels will leach into the sugar creating oleo-saccharum. Squeeze the lemons until you have 1 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Pour the lemon juice over the sugar until sugar is completely dissolved. Next, brew 5 cups of strong black tea. Make sure it’s decaf. Add the tea, aged Jamaican rum and Cognac to the sugar-lemon mixture in the large pot. Heat everything together on the stovetop on low, so that all ingredients mix together. Transfer to a slow cooker and serve on low with the lid removed. Make sure to bring a grater for the nutmeg and ladle for serving.
“I like to have everyone garnish with nutmeg scrapings to their liking,” Schettler said. “And the great thing about this punch is that over time, as the night goes on, the alcohol starts burning off, so people don’t get too drunk.”