At Last: The twoheadsoflettuce Guide to Delicious, Sustainable, Efficient, and Pluralistic Potlucks
I love potlucks.
In potlucks, I see the potential expression of all sorts of Jewish and progressive values, including those of living in community, hachnasat orechim (hospitality), and—done thoughtfully—bal tashchit (preventing waste). Potlucks can enable a widely diverse group of people to eat and celebrate together, and in the process to build strong communal and personal ties. Potlucks also allow those of us with busy lives to celebrate Shabbat, holidays, and lifecycle events in community without having to cook and host full meals all by ourselves. In addition, potlucks keep Jewish life affordable. Rather than paying $25 a person for a bad catered meal, as so many organizations and synagogues request of us, we can provide our own delicious and healthy food for a fraction of the price.
Over the last ten years, I’ve organized potlucks for four people and potlucks for 100. I’ve organized potlucks to celebrate Shabbat, New Years, Passover, my birthday, my friends’ birthdays, and nothing in particular. I’ve also attended just about every kind of potluck imaginable. I’ve experienced spectacular potlucks overflowing with abundant, healthy, and, most importantly, delectable food. But I’ve also experienced disastrous potlucks: those without enough food, those that turned into all-bean dinners, and those where some contributors were shamed or embarrassed because their contributions did not meet the organizers’ standards of kashrut and where others could not eat because their personal standards of kashrut differed from those of the organizers. I’ve also just eaten a lot of bad potluck food.
The following is a distilled version of everything I’ve learned from my experiences, my friends, and my colleagues. The end result is ten tips for making your potluck meals delicious, ample, diverse, environmentally sustainable, efficient, and inclusive of a wide range of Jewish practices. This guide assumes that potlucks will be vegetarian and is geared toward potlucks held in a Jewish setting, but is applicable to virtually any context. (FYI, the term hechshered means that a product is marked with a recognized kosher symbol and not just the letter “K”. Kashrut is the Hebrew word for kosher-ness.).
Without further ado:
1) Season, season, season! And season again: The vast majority of potluck food is under-salted and under-spiced. Be generous with your seasonings! There's nothing worse than a potluck full of straight-out-of-the-refrigerator, cold, starchy, bland dishes (which, unfortunately, describes many of the potlucks I attend). Dressings and seasonings that taste strong on their own get diluted when mixed with a large amount of pasta or salad. When in doubt, add more salt, pepper, spices, and vinegar than you think you need. Also, make sure to take your food out of the fridge in enough time for it to warm up to room temperature before it’s eaten. Cold masks the flavor and aroma of food.
2) Think broadly: Potluck dishes don't have to consist of couscous or pasta. Think beautiful salads with dark leafy greens, colorful veggies, cheese, nuts, olives, and/or fruit. (And for the love of all things good and holy, please chop your salad veggies—and your ingredients for other dishes-- into small pieces. Those little plastic potluck knives can’t cut a stick of butter, much less a big ring of red pepper or an enormous spear of broccoli. Veggies also taste better when they’re cut smaller.) Think tofu: sauteed, baked, stir fried, grilled, with veggies, with peanut sauce, with barbeque sauce, with bottled Asian-type sauces. (Soy Vay and Iron Chef brand sauces are recommended as both certified kosher and containing all good ingredients and no nasty additives or chemicals). Think yummy vegetable or cheese frittatas (large puffy omelets that are finished in the oven). Think worldly: Indian curries, Thai stir fries, Middle Eastern salads, and African stews and soups. Use smaller amounts of flavorful, high-quality ingredients (like fresh vegetables and first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil) rather than larger amounts of lower-quality ingredients (anything packaged with MSG, lots of additives, or partially-hydrogenated oils).
Keep checking twoheadsoflettuce for new and updated recipes. Consider buying a cookbook or two. Our favorite cookbook, hands down, is Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison. The Moosewood cookbooks also have lots of interesting recipes, although they’re sometimes on the bland side and need further spicing (are you sensing a trend?)
3) Consider making a main dish: Have you ever been to a potluck where there's not quite enough food? Or where dinner consists mainly of pita and hummus and dessert? Not such a fabulous gastronomical experience, right? Potlucks operate on the philosophy that each person attending feels a sense of responsibility to the group and contributes according to that sense of responsibility. If you want the group to eat well and for the potluck to be a success, please consider contributing a main dish rather than a side dish. In most cases, the time, effort, and money spent on cooking a main dish is only marginally greater than making a side dish.
4) Bring an appropriate amount of food: You are not allowed to RSVP to the potluck organizer(s) and say "I'm coming with three friends and we're bringing a bottle of grape juice." (True story.) As a general rule, your potluck contribution should be enough to feed at least 8-10 people.
Of course, everyone has last-minute guests, kitchen emergencies, and stressful lives. If you're not going to be able to cook for a potluck, go out and buy some real food, not another box of Entenmann's cookies or a bottle of wine. If the rules of the potluck allow vegetarian food that isn't necessarily hechshered, stop by your favorite Indian or Asian restaurant and buy a takeout dish or two. (If you live on Manhattan's Upper West Side, you can get certified kosher dairy takeout from Café Viva, Café Roma, Bagel Basket, Bagels & Co., and Pizza Cave. A big pizza, cut up into little squares, is a fun potluck contribution.)
5) RSVP in a timely manner: If the organizer asks you to RSVP in advance with your contribution, just do it. Knowing in advance what people are bringing allows the organizer to make, buy, or assign others to bring essential dishes that aren't yet covered (salads, wine for kiddush, challah, enough main dishes, etc.). The courtesy of a prompt reply to the organizer makes everyone's life easier-- and more delicious.
6) Bring a serving utensil: Although some potluck groups have their own serving pieces, many do not. And many hosts don't own enough serving utensils to go around. Bringing a serving utensil for your dish helps cut down on the number of disposable plastic forks and spoons that are wasted at a potluck. It's also strongly in your interest. The lines for food increase in proportion to how many of those tiny, breakage-prone, disposable plastic spoons and forks are used to dish out the food. You'll eat much sooner if you bring normal-sized utensils for serving your food. You can also encourage the potluck organizers to buy a set of serving pieces that are reserved solely for use at your potlucks. (When kashrut is a concern, see tip #10 about the two table system.)
7) Label your serving dishes and utensils with your name: It's a rare potluck where there isn't at least one piece of Tupperware or a serving spoon left behind, never to be identified. It's annoying for the organizer who has to cart the dishes home and track down the owners, and wasteful if the organizer winds up throwing out the mystery dishes. (Remember that some organizers may not be able to keep wayward dishes in their kitchens if they don't know whether they came from a household that uses all-hechshered products).
8) Think sustainably: If the rules of your potluck allow it, strongly consider bringing your own plate, cup, and/or fork to avoid needlessly wasting disposable paper and plastic. If your potluck does use disposables, encourage the community to purchase biodegradable disposables made out of sugarcane, corn, and other interesting materials. (In some cases, the biodegradable plates and utensils cost the same, or only a bit more, than regular good-quality disposables. For one example, see Treecycle). If your potluck meets in a building with storage space and a dishwasher and/or a large sink(s), you might also consider buying real dishes and silverware for the whole group and then washing them after the potluck. (If you're interested in learning more about how to make this kind of arrangement work, you can email Tikkun Leil Shabbat, a DC group, at firstname.lastname@example.org).
9) Tell the world what you made: Some potluck superstars have taken to listing the ingredients in their dish on a post-it or a piece of paper near their dish. This is tremendously appreciated by those with milk/wheat/nut/fish/other allergies and by folks looking to cut down on things like oil and sugar. Plus, it's just cool to have the recipe in front of you for dishes you like. If your recipe is a success, email it to us and we'll post it here on twoheadsoflettuce!
10) Finally (for Jewish potlucks), strongly consider using a two table system*: Potlucks can be a relaxed opportunity for people with a wide variety of opinions and Jewish practices to hang out and get to know one another. A two table system is a simple way to enable this to happen. In order to respect the variety of kashrut practices in your community and make sure that everyone can contribute and eat at your potluck, you can require that all food adhere to one of the following two standards:
1. Vegetarian, with only vegetarian ingredients. (You can decide whether fish with fins and scales is also permitted as long as it is labeled or self-evident.) OR
2. Still vegetarian (plus fish, as above), with all ingredients marked by a recognized kosher symbol (meaning more than just a "K") and cooked (if applicable) in a kosher kitchen that uses only hechshered products.
Then set up and label a separate buffet table for each category so that everyone is fully informed. And voila-- pluralism at its best.
* This description of the two table system is adapted, with permission, from Kol Zimrah. See also Mah Rabu.
Happy eating! (And remember your spices!)