Potluck Nightmares

Like cheese in a can or cross-country road trips, potluck dinner parties are great in theory. In reality, they create unexpected work for you, the host or hostess, whose only wish is to socialize and imbibe a little at your own soiree. And I’m not just talking about ending up with a dozen varieties of potato salad — which, by the way, can make for a memorable group feast. Who doesn’t love lots of different kinds of potato salad? But consider this potluck nightmare:

The first guest to arrive at a recent backyard barbecue is the friend of a friend; she stands demurely in the back yard, clutching a bag of soybeans. I know what’s coming. The healthy, dreaded snack everyone claims to love: edamame. Before long, I’m digging out a large pot, spoon, colander and serving dish. “Do you keep salt?” she sweetly asks. I smile and bring down the family-size tub of Morton’s, trying not to slam it on the counter. “I’m sorry if this is any trouble,” she says, turning on the stove top so the flames rise several inches above the burner. “No trouble at all,” I lie, in an Oscar-worthy performance.

Later at that same party, a couple shows up with a basket of corn. “I brought corn on the cob!” the male half announces merrily. “It’s from the farmers market,” like this makes it have magic powers. I put down my freshly made margarita, lead him into my tiny kitchen — where Ms. Edamame is still preparing her dish — and set the schmuck up to wash and shuck the corn. Then he has the gall — the gall! — to ask if I have any of those stupid little corn-cob-stabber things. Stupidly, I let him rifle through every drawer in the kitchen until finally, after impaling myself on the kebab skewers that I was frantically searching for earlier that afternoon, I come up with an odd number of cute little corn on the cobs with minidaggers.

And that’s why I don’t throw potluck parties anymore. Instead, I Google “make it ahead” and get all kinds of exciting recipes that you can prepare well in advance. On the first page, I found Spicy Cilantro and Mint Chutney; Herb-rubbed Pork Loin; Eggplant With Tomato and Garlic Sauce; Syrian Red Lentil Soup; Yorkshire Pudding; and the intriguing Tropical Ball of Cheese — which all sounds like a lovely menu for a winter dinner party.

But if you absolutely must give a potluck party, here are a few things I learned the hard way:

1. Make it clear that the dishes be ready to serve.

2. Suggest that people bring their own serving spoons. Do not force your host or hostess to display her collection of serving spoons with melted handles and rust marks.

3. The typical single man will only bring a six-pack of beer to a potluck. It’s all he knows how to shop for, though if he passes the chip aisle, you may get lucky and score more Lay’s (they only buy Lay’s — yuk, yuk).

4. Finally, as my mom warns, never serve anything jelled, because it has to stay jelled and there’s never anyplace to put it except in the direct sun. Plus, nobody likes anything jelled.

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