It happened to me last fall, when I got invited to a potluck at a historic house way out in the country.
I’d heard about this gathering for years: The guests are members of a Southern food-writing group. The setting is an antebellum house so beautiful, it gets rented out for magazine shoots. The hosts are gracious and friendly.
And then, I panicked a little: What should I take to something like that? Sure, my hosts would have said not to worry: “Bring anything.”
Don’t believe it for a second. In today’s food-focused world, where even our bacon has provenance, potlucks are the new networking events.
Sure, some potlucks are simple backyard gatherings where a tub of guacamole will be fine. But a lot of them are becoming more than that: They’re professional gatherings of people you know and respect – and people you’ve always wanted to know and get to respect you.
“I usually feel a little pressure,” admits Catherine Carter, the publisher of Edible Charlotte magazine, who goes to a lot of food-industry potlucks, including a regular gathering of women who work on local farms.
“In the back of my mind is this niggling thought that I can’t show up with a dud.”
Heather Hesketh felt that fear in 2011, the first time she got invited to Stir the Pot, a potluck fundraiser in the Raleigh-area started by James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen. Hesketh and her husband, Steve Champeon, have a lot of food-focused friends, but they’re not chefs – they have a firm that provides Internet consulting.
“That first one, I was terrified,” she admits. She finally settled on her grandmother’s corn pudding. She made it from corn she had put up and frozen herself, and she took it in a dish from a Seagrove potter.
“All these talismans,” she said, laughing. “I put it on the table and Ashley gave me two thumbs-up. And I was like, ‘yeah, I can do this.’”
Nancy Vienneau got a book out of her potluck: “Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook” is based on a monthly potluck that’s been going on since 2009 in Nashville, Tenn.
It started out with people who know each other through the local-food scene there and has grown to involve dozens of people.
For the host, a potluck is a lot less pressure than a dinner party, Vienneau says. And for the guests, whether they are chefs or neighbors who are out to impress, it ought be about just being yourself.
“It’s not a state dinner,” she tells people.
In her book, Vinneau shares her three “potluck axioms”:
1. Use what you’ve got.
2. Draw on what you know.
3. Let it go and be confident you put your best out there.
“I don’t want you to fret,” she says. “Cook something you love. That’s who you are.”
Kris Reid is a Charlotte chef who is the director of operations for MODPaleo and the founder of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, a Charlotte-area chefs’ group. She followed the rule of “use what you’ve got” when she was invited to a chef potluck last year put on by SouthPark magazine.
For a story, writer Keia Mastrianni had invited a group of Charlotte chefs to each bring a dish to share while they talked about local food. So Reid looked around at what she had:
Local strawberries, buttermilk, lavender she grew herself and good cornmeal from Anson Mills in South Carolina. She came up with a strawberry and lavender shortcake with sweet cornmeal biscuits.
“It’s not about being pretentious,” she says. “It’s about celebrating those flavors.”
While the Piedmont Culinary Guild doesn’t have a regular gathering like Christensen’s Stir the Pot, Reid sees the potential.
“Food is community, community is food,” she says. “You can’t have one without the other. And a potluck brings you back to that. That’s the essence of a potluck, trying to bring people into a circle.”
For that potluck last fall, I came up with a bourbon-pecan pimento cheese. It fit the relaxed Sunday-brunch atmosphere, and it was a conversation-starter.
It also was a good example of something Heather Hesketh has learned about potlucks: Taking something you like is a way to let people know something about you. And that can help you make friends in a new group of people.
“Whoever gravitates to that dish is going to be someone who has something in common with you.”
5 tips for potlucks
▪ Respect the host’s specialties. If she is renowned (or wants to be) for her deviled eggs, don’t turn it into a competition to best her.
▪ Food safety, please. You’re sharing food with a lot of people and some might have health issues. Think about how you will keep perishable food cold or hot and don’t cross-contaminate cooked and raw food.
▪ Some people don’t mind if you heat something in the oven when you get there. Others may not have the space. Check before you pick that hot dip.
▪ Bring what you need to serve it. Yes, that includes a serving spoon or a knife. Or disposable bowls if you bring a soup or a stew.
▪ If you want to encourage people to eat it, break the surface – take out a scoop, or make a couple of slices in the cake.
Butternut Squash and Bean Chili
From “Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook,” by Nancy Vienneau (Thomas Nelson, 2014). This is not only vegetarian, you can fancy it up with heirloom beans, such as Rancho Gordo, sold at gourmet food markets.
3 cups chopped (large dice) butternut squash
1 large or 2 medium poblano peppers, halved, stemmed and seeded
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 medium onion, chopped
2 banana peppers, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping cup of dried beans (such as kidney or black beans)
1 jalapeno pepper, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups sour cream and 5 to 6 chopped green onions (garnish; optional)
PREHEAT oven to 425 degrees. Spread the diced squash and halved poblano peppers on a baking sheet. Coat with 3 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast about 20 minutes. Place the squash in a bowl, cover and refrigerate. Peel and chop the poblanos and set aside.
WARM the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, banana peppers and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
ADD the dry beans to the pan and stir until they are coated with the olive oil and onion mixture. Pour in enough water to cover the beans by at least 2 inches (about 6 cups). Add the roasted poblano pieces and the jalapeno slices.
INCREASE heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until the beans are tender, about 2 hours. Add the butternut squash with the allspice, cumin and cayenne. Warm through and taste to adjust the seasoning.
SERVE garnished with sour cream and green onions.
Yield: About 10 servings.
From Heather Hesketh of Raleigh.
2 cups fresh or frozen corn, thawed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons butter, melted
PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Combine the corn, flour, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Stir well.
WHISK together the milk, eggs and melted butter in a separate bowl. Stir into the corn mixture. Pour into a lightly greased 1-quart casserole dish.
BAKE for 15 minutes, then stir. Bake 15 minutes and stir again. Continue to bake for 30 minutes longer, until set and a little brown around the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
Big Skillet Chocolate Chip Blondie
From “Anne Byrn Saves the Day Cookbook,” by Anne Byrn (Workman, 2014).
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups lightly packed light brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
PLACE a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
PLACE the butter in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over low heat. Stir the butter until it melts, then stir in the brown sugar until well combined. Remove the skillet from the heat.
PLACE the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and stir to mix. Spoon the flour mixture into the skillet with the butter and brown sugar and make a well in the center. Add the eggs and vanilla to the well and stir the flour mixture up and into the eggs, mixing in the butter mixture, until the mixture is mostly smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Fold in the chocolate chops and sprinkle the pecans over the top, if using.
MOVE to the oven and bake until the edges are lightly brown and the center is still a little soft to the touch, 22 to 26 minutes. Remove from the oven. Scoop out and serve warm with ice cream, or cool 1 hour and slice into wedges.
Yield: About 8 servings.