Contrary to rumors during these belt-tightening times, the dinner party is not dead. It has just gone potluck.
Whoever would have thought that, like our parents, we'd be writing our names on masking tape stuck to the bottoms of bowls and platters? We can recall endless buffets of foods designed for portability and heft: Waldorf salads, ambrosia and 101 permutations of Jell-O. Green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, tamale pie and Swedish meatballs. Cobblers, pies and sheet cakes. Could it really be us trundling to our host's front door, arms loaded with lidded casseroles, Tupperware and sliding-top cake pans?
Let's hope not.
Communal effort in cooking may be the \o7 Zeitgeist \f7 of the '90s, but at today's potluck dinners, a hodgepodge of food in tin, plastic and paper is decidedly out of date. Now there's potluck etiquette, and the first rule is that everything must be presented in an attractive dish. This means \o7 no \f7 Tupperware, \o7 no \f7 aluminum foil and \o7 no\f7 Crock-Pots. To help cut the clutter of mismatched dishes, a potluck host can unify presentation by announcing a theme. For example: white. White food can be served on white china on white linen surrounded by white flowers. Too bland? Try another color. Other serving ware choices could include basketry, festive paper, antique salvers, bright California pottery, pewter, silver, glass or wood. Culinary themes abound: One eating club worked through the alphabet, starting with foods that began with A, then B, then C and so on. I've also heard of ethnic potlucks and favorite-foods-from-childhood potlucks.
Occasionally, hosts devise whole menus and hand out recipes, but the only "luck" in this procedure is the guests' luck of the draw: who has to make the \o7 mousse chaude de truite de riviere au coulis d'ecrevisses\f7 and who gets to bring ice. Other common mistakes in hosting a potluck include not exerting enough control ("I don't care what your bring. . ."), taking on too much of the burden yourself (cooking, plus supplying all the drinks and tableware), assigning too little food (you can rarely have too much) and giving men all the easy jobs (bringing beverages and bread).
The guests' job is to do their part in a way that celebrates--or at least does not humiliate--their host. Potlucks originally meant meals for which no special preparations were made; people simply brought what they ate at home. As guests, we decide: Do we bring what we really would have eaten? Or do we show off and pretend that's the way we normally dine? One man I know brings either extravagant, labor-intensive dishes or mineral water.
These days, there's another alternative. Ranging from Peking duck and fresh spring rolls to gourmet salads and lovely pates, takeout food is not only permissible for potlucks, it's also preferable if you have no time or talent for cooking. But don't try to pass off Trader Joe's mousses and pates as your own--we all know better.
Guests who do cook should bring dishes that require little or no prep time and no serving utensils or ingredients (not even butter or salad dressing) from the host. A little last-minute assembling is OK--\o7 crudites\f7 , for example, are best arranged at the party lest they get jumbled during the car ride over. Also, when arriving at a potluck, check with the host before setting your dish on the buffet so you don't unwittingly blemish an artful design. When leaving, make every effort to retrieve your own dish.
Common mistakes made by potluck guests include bringing food that doesn't travel well (layer cakes, fried foods, foods that congeal), making something big rather than good (20 quarts of \o7 tabouli\f7 , pasta or potato salad) and waiting until the last minute to decide what to contribute and then overspending to compensate (Was that $45 \o7 foie gras \f7 really necessary?).
The holidays are almost here. Dream up a theme, set a date, make a guest list. In these strapped economic times, we may not have the time, energy or money to singlehandedly host the lavish dinner party of our dreams, but with friends, imagination and a little potluck, we'll do just fine.
You Can Take It With You
GREEN OLIVE TAPENADE
From "The California Cook" (due next spring from Bantam), by Diane Rosen Worthington:
\o7 20 large (30 medium) green olives, pitted 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 Tbsp capers, well-drained and rinsed 2 anchovy fillets, drained 2 tsp Dijon mustard 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice 2 Tbsp basil, finely chopped 1/4 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper 1/3 cup olive oil\f7
Combine all ingredients except olive oil in food processor fitted with steel blade and puree. With motor running, add oil until absorbed. Taste to correct seasoning. Place in airtight container and refrigerate. To serve, transfer to hollowed-out head of red cabbage surrounded by toasted bread and ornamental kale leaves. Makes about 1 cup.
GOAT CHEESE SPREAD ON PECAN AND PROSCIUTTO BREAD