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Pot (bad) luck

Used to be the bar at a potluck was a cooler. Now the bar is set higher. Bringing a dish of your own choosing (or one dictated by the host) isn't always a piece of cake.

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / September 21, 2011

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Potluck parties sound so relaxed, don’t they? Hey, let’s all contribute a dish so we can enjoy one another’s company without forcing the host to do all the work!

Yeah, right.

As the nation’s relationship with food becomes ever more complicated, the potluck has turned into a minefield. As if allergy, sustainability, and food safety issues don’t already pose enough of a challenge, reports are now coming in about controlling hosts, guests with performance anxiety, resentment toward the events themselves - and please, everyone, enough with the hummus.

“People are really becoming very specific about what you should bring,’’ says entertaining expert Emily Terry, coauthor of the bestseller “Nesting: It’s a Chick Thing.’’

Terry has started hearing about hosts who dictate not just categories of dishes, but particular recipes and acceptable serving platters. She understands the urge - “Sometimes you go to a potluck and it’s not that appetizing’’ - but she cautions those with controlling tendencies. “It can backfire on you. People can get resentful.’’

That would be Scott Cole, the owner of Caffe Pomo D’oro, in West Stockbridge. “I’ve come to dread the invitations,’’ he said, launching into a diatribe against a “hostess’’ who provides little more than a venue. “This particular person is eager to have a dinner party,’’ he begins, “but she doesn’t want to do any of the work.’’

He mimics the accused hostess: “Maybe you could bring lamb. And I don’t have lemons or limes. If you could get a dozen of each, and if you have some tonic water, that would be great, too. I realize I’ve invited 12 people, but I have only 8 seats. If you have folding chairs . . .

He returned to his own voice: “You get there,’’ he says, “and she will have cooked maybe a tiny pot of lentils that could serve three or four people.’’

It’s enough to make a guest want to stay home. That, in fact, is what Elizabeth Zachos, a principal in Anmahian Winton Architects, in Cambridge, did one time, after being ordered to make a brunch dish that contained potatoes. Unable to think of anything but hash browns, which she did not want to bring, Zachos called the host seeking guidance - but got no help. “Just make sure it has potatoes in it,’’ she was told.

A few days later she retracted her RSVP. “You want to help,’’ she says, “but you want it to be fun for yourself, too. It’s a fine line to walk.’’

Many whistle-blowers aren’t brave enough to go public, but off the record, their resentment seethes. “At one alleged potluck I was told to bring a two-liter bottle of Blossom Hill chardonnay,’’ an otherwise cheerful Bostonian reports, requesting anonymity for fear of really getting on the hostess’s wrong side. “Another time, it was mashed potatoes without skins. Another time, I was ordered to make this elaborate chicken curry salad which costs a fortune because it has grapes, chutney, and all sorts of stuff in it.’’

But pity, for a moment, the bossy host. Humorist Laurie Notaro, the author of “It Looked Different on the Model,’’ has been on the receiving end of one too many inappropriate dishes. “A tub of hummus doesn’t qualify as making a dish,’’ she says. “If I am going to turn on the stove and make something you are going to eat, I want the favor returned.’’

And if you go to her home, please don’t bring raw bacon, as one guest did. “I’d been cooking all afternoon,’’ she said. “I’m not going to get splashed with grease.’’

But bringing a dish of your own choosing, even one that’s fully cooked, isn’t always a piece of cake. Renee Baaqee, of South Weymouth, is so worried that her pie or macaroni and cheese will be shunned that she lurks near the buffet table hoping to overhear honest criticism, the better to tweak the recipe for the next time.

Her spy work has led her to sweeten her apple pie over the years, and it’s now a crowd pleaser. But Baaqee, a project coordinator at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, remains nervous. “When you bring your food outside your home you’re always afraid people won’t like it.’’

Why is it so very important that one’s dish be popular? Amanda Holt, 30, a local theatrical technician, summed it up: What you literally bring to the party, she says, is a “reflection of what you bring to the party in the larger sense.’’

Her advice: Put your offering in a “cute’’ container. “Tissue paper can go a long way,’’ she advises. “It’s a cheap way to make it look like you put in the effort.’’

If there’s one thing more important than a “cute’’ platter, it’s getting that platter back, a task made harder if you want to sneak out before the party ends. Holt’s recommendation: “Walk around and pass your offering as if you’re being nice,’’ she says. “But be subtle about your intentions.’’

Alas, even those with a beloved signature dish don’t get out unscathed. Consider the case of Mona Wiener, a Brookline real estate agent, who has essentially been forced to make the same sweet and sour meatballs going on 30 years now. “I’m sick of them,’’ she says, shrugging her shoulders, a hostage to her own dish. “But people love them.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

What not to do for a potluck party

DON’T bring something the host needs to flambé (or, for that matter, cook in any other fashion).

DON’T put your offering on a platter or plastic container you aren’t willing to leave behind.

DON’T be stingy.

DON’T bring the cheapest thing in the supermarket.

DON’T buy a wedge of cheese and crackers and think that’s enough.

DON’T ask a guest to make something expensive.

DON’T make a dish containing hidden potential allergens (nuts, dairy, gluten) without alerting the host and other guests. You never know who suffers from what.

DON’T sign up for a crucial dish - an entree, for example - and then skip the party.

DON’T stand watch over your dish to see who likes it.

Do you get potluck anxiety? What do you think should be on our "What not to do for a potluck party" list? Discuss in the comments.