It was a near-crisis. The situation was unprecedented as well as acutely embarrassing. The president had to open a public event by making a humiliating announcement.
She had the courage to be blunt. "I hate to say this, but we just barely have enough food to go around, so please don't help yourselves too liberally."
The public event was last month's regular potluck dinner of an organization we belong to. For the first time in institutional memory, the members had failed to bring an abundance of food. The president showed her leadership skills, though, both in her public announcement and in her resource management. As she explained after the meal, "The only dessert was one pie, so I just moved a couple of Jell-O salads to that end of the table."
Fortunately, such an occurrence is rare. Whether it's a church supper, a club's regular meeting, or a get-together with friends, potlucks are an easy way to feed a group. Everybody shares the work, everybody shares the cost, those on special diets can bring something they know they can eat, and most of the leftovers—and the dirty dishes they came in—go home with the ones who brought them.
Of course, inviting people to a potluck without giving them any suggestions about what to bring does have certain risks. Sometimes meals are heavy on breads. Sometimes casseroles rule the table. I remember one occasion when everyone brought desserts and we had to order pizza just to have a little protein. And, of course, a discerning shopper can often tell what foods are currently on special at Safeway.
Sometimes a meal can inadvertently develop a theme. There was the corn-fed dinner where we had corn chowder, cornbread, corn salad, and homegrown sweet corn. We could have either filmed an episode of "Hee Haw" or opened our own ethanol plant.
Potlucks may not be elegant dinner parties a la Emily Post or Martha Stewart, but they do have their own etiquette. It's considered good manners to take a little of most things but not too much of anything. Eating your own food is optional. You are, however, expected to take home your own leftovers. Exceptions do sometimes occur, as when the person who brought that oh-so-rich dessert ruthlessly sneaks out the door and leaves it in the refrigerator of the dieting hostess.
Good manners and etiquette do have their common-sense limits, of course. To illustrate, here is a potluck logic problem. Suppose a hypothetical person whose resemblance to the writer of this column is strictly coincidental hosts a potluck dinner at her house. Guests have brought three desserts: cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies, and carrot cake (which of course doesn't count because everyone knows carrots are vegetables.)
The hostess eats one of each. She tells herself she is just going out of her way not to hurt the feelings of any of the cooks. Is she really being:
A. Polite and gracious?
E. Just plain greedy?
All answers will be kept strictly confidential—especially by the hostess.