The unofficial Vineyard party, the potluck dinner, is a great idea in theory: everybody brings one dish to share and you end up with a glorious feast. But in reality it can be a difficult thing to pull off, both for the host and for the guests. What if dishes don’t work together? What if everyone brings potato salad? What if you bring chili and your host has no serving bowls? Ugh.

Since moving to the Vineyard full time about six years ago, I am guessing we have attended, on average, one to two potlucks a month, which comes out to just over a hundred Island potlucks. I’m sure many of you have hosted or attended multiples of this number – it’s just the way meals happen here: school fundraiser – potluck; community music jam – potluck; nonprofit board meeting – potluck; new moms group – potluck. It’s our default.

And it’s a smart default! Potluck dinner parties simplify meal planning and divide costs evenly among participants. You get a lot from a little individual effort (and I’m not just talking about bringing a sad crudité platter and filling your plate with local pulled pork).

You may think something as basic as a potluck dinner party doesn’t need much thought, but I beg to differ. A little bit of planning can go a long way to keeping your meal from becoming a chaotic mess. With that in mind I’ve put together some tips for both coordinators and attendees that are sure to up your potluck prowress.

As a host

Loosen up: When you’re hosting a potluck dinner party, check your Type A personality at the door. You can suggest that someone bring a certain type of dish, but if your friend is dying to bring his famous (notorious?) mini weiners, just let him.

Big group? Skip a theme: If you host an intimate potluck dinner regularly, like for your Tuesday night knitting group, choosing a theme can be a fun way to step out of your comfort zone. But themes often don’t work for larger potlucks with a wide range of guests.

Consider cooking abilities and budgets: This seems obvious, but don’t ask a beginner cook to prepare fried chicken for fifty, or someone on a tight budget to bring a pricey dish.

Sign up: If you don’t email a sign-up sheet, you’ll get six egg salads, three trays of blondies, and no vegetables. If an email sign-up feels too stiff, the host can assign people a category (drinks, sides, main, dessert) and see what shows up.

As a guest

Don’t assume: Bring everything you need to serve your dish, from serving utensils to an extra sprinkling of salt or a kitchen towel to rest your warm pot on. Inevitably, if you assume your host has what you need, he or she won’t and you’ll kick yourself for not bringing it yourself.

Skip soupy stuff: The best potluck dishes fit all cozy together on a large dinner plate. If a dish, such as a soup or stew, needs an individual serving bowl, choose something else.

Avoid the oven scramble: Even if your casserole needs just ten minutes in a hot oven before landing on the potluck table, it is best to do the warming at home. You never know how many people are going to be vying for oven time, and your host is already juggling many requests. Of course, if it is essential, plan with the host ahead of time.

When in doubt, go veggie: Guests tend to bring heavy, rich dishes like mayo-based salads, cheesy casseroles, and baked ziti. These things make sense – they’re straightforward, popular, and travel well. But the potluck buffet often lacks texture and freshness. Choose a bright dish like a bean, grain, or vegetable salad. The recipe here for Wild Rice Salad with Fennel, Dried Apricots, and Radicchio is a good example of a hearty, interesting, bright potluck option.

No time to cook? We all have experienced last-minute potluck panic. If you find yourself in the grocery store ten minutes before the gathering, steer away from prepackaged crudité trays. Instead, look around for interesting cured meats and cheese, good olives, seltzer water, or paper goods.

Maybe I’ve scared you off from potlucks forever? Inspired you to invite a crew over this weekend? In any case, the pros of a potluck dinner party certainly outweigh the challenges. And really,
even a bad potluck is still a great time – especially if it’s on Martha’s Vineyard.

The following recipe was originally published along with the article:

Wild Rice Salad with Fennel, Dried Apricots, and Radicchio