Dear Etiquetteer: I'm part of a community that regularly holds potlucks for holidays and events. Different people coordinate each potluck with loosely organized online spreadsheets for people to list what they'll bring. We often suggest a theme, and our community has a few dietary restrictions, but otherwise we let people bring what they like -- as long as they bring enough for others, of course!
This arrangement has worked well so far. The person coordinating the latest potluck, however, has already decided on a Mexican-themed menu featuring make-your-own tacos. To that end, the person has told people to sign up for specific dishes as well as for specific ingredients -- for example, "fresh diced tomatoes" and "chopped cilantro" for around forty people. The person has also designed the online spreadsheet in a way that discourages people from listing other items.
It seems like poor form to dictate the terms of a so-called "potluck" so carefully, especially given the precedent we've established in our community. It also makes the potluck less fun: we have many members who would have gladly prepared more interesting Mexican dishes. What is your take, Etiquetteer?
Dear Potlucked Out:
Certainly it appears to be sufficiently different from your group's usual practice, which is cause enough for concern. The need for control at a meal one is coordinating but not entirely cooking oneself can be tricky, particularly for meals as large as the number you indicate; probably the worst example can be seen here. Perhaps this is La Reina de México's first time to coordinate for your community potluck? A potluck coordinator does need to be allowed some authority, even when acting as part of a group instead of as an independent host. Still, this sounds unnecessarily limiting, but Etiquetteer doesn't attribute it to bossiness on the part of La Reina de México. This person probably likes tacos, or just thought it would be a good group activity without considering the extensive range of True Mexican Cuisine.
As is so often in the case of manners, Communication is the solution. Those who felt limited by the options available should have communicated privately with La Reina de México to offer other dishes, or at least share concerns from the group about the departure from Standard Operating Procedure. One could ruffle a few feathers by using the spreadsheet differently from its original intent -- Heaven knows Etiquetteer has met enough people who have perverted online surveys and spreadsheets for their own purposes! -- by merely adding unrelated text in a field with one's own comment, such as "I'm going to bring chili con carne for 40 - hope you don't mind!" But Etiquetteer cannot recommend this approach because it will embarrass La Reina de México publicly and unnecessarily. The next time La Reina de México ends up volunteering to coordinate, be sure this person knows that freedom of choice is a central value of your potluck community.
Etiquetteer does have a few rules about potlucks:
- The host/coordinator should be responsible for the meat dish, since that's often the most expensive. That said, for very large groups like this one, other guests may be assigned meat dishes.
- If the host/coordinator gives you an assignment that you are unable to fulfill or just plain don't like, communicate with that person privately; this is not a time for "Reply All." Thinking host/coordinators will offer another assignment. Otherwise you might need to plan to visit your friend Bunbury in the country.
- Arrive on time! Nothing affects the service of a meal more than a portion of that meal not actually being in the house. Be sure to confirm with your host/coordinator at what time the buffet is to be open (as opposed to what time everyone is to arrive) so that you can plan accordingly.
- The portion of the meal you bring should be ready to serve when you arrive in the house. Do not expect to prepare and cook it when you get there. The only preparation that should be required is to uncover it, and heat it if necessary. This is especially true for salads and other dishes that require lots of chopping, mincing, or shredding. No kitchen has infinite counter space, you have no idea how many people may be fighting to use the one cutting board in the house, and the host/coordinator will still be preparing the meat dish. This is probably why Etiquetteer continues to find casseroles the best potluck food.
- It is kind, but not required, to offer to help with the dishes. That said, expect to take home dirty the serving items you brought.
- Don't quarrel over the leftovers. It's so petty.