Potlucks are part of Southern culture. Whether it’s the church homecoming, Friendsgiving, or a monthly neighborhood event, potlucks give Southern cooks a chance to show off their favorite recipes. Just like any gathering, though, there are some important etiquette rules to follow at Southern potlucks.
Volunteer and Commit
Potlucks require a little teamwork to ensure the party goes smoothly, and that starts with the challenge of who brings what. If you’re hosting, there are several ways to go about this. If you’re planning the potluck with a group that meets in person, bring a sign-up sheet for guests. You can either specify what the party needs in a column (i.e. “Salad” or “Rolls”), and guests can sign their name by the item they’d like to bring, or you can give them the freedom to write down whatever dish they please. The only trouble with that route is that you don’t want to end up hosting a potluck that has an overflowing dessert table with just one main dish and a handful of appetizers. If you’re a tech-savvy crew, you can email a list via Google Docs for everyone to edit. Once you sign up for something, you’re expected to bring it. If you signed your name by “Vegetables,” show up with a vegetable dish! Your hostess planned this meal expecting a vegetable dish from you, not a last-minute appetizer you picked up on the way.
Consider the Crowd
Be mindful of allergies and food sensitivities. No, we’re not saying you shouldn’t bake your famous peanut butter pie. Just be sure to ask the hostess beforehand if she knows of any attendees with specific allergies or food sensitivities. If they aren’t sure, it’s always a good idea to label food with nuts, shellfish, gluten, and other common allergens.
Communicate with the Hostess
Let the hostess know before the event if your dish needs to be reheated in the oven or cooled off in the fridge. She might have the oven set to another temperature for her own dish, and her fridge might be full of supplies for the party. If you’re bringing a salad that needs tossing or a dish that specifically needs a slotted spoon for serving, bring your own utensils to get your dish ready to serve. Be considerate and give her a heads-up if your dish needs any tweaking once you arrive—she’ll really appreciate it. When in doubt, it’s always easy to bring a dish that can be served at room temp like a classic pasta salad or simple appetizer.
Arrive on time. Do not arrive early or late. Don’t barge in on your hostess while her rollers are still in her hair because you need to finish up your dish. Having guests arrive before start time could really be stressful to a hostess. If you’re bringing appetizers or something that needs a little prep, arrive right on time so guests can enjoy these treats as they come in.
While it’s not required, we recommend bringing your dish in something presentable. Sure, it would be easy to throw out that foil casserole dish from the grocery store, but that won’t look very appealing sitting next to Martha’s pretty baking dish. You don’t have to whip out the fine china by any means but bring an actual dish unless the hostess specifies that disposable dishes are easier for her. Feel the party out—is it a casual backyard barbecue with kids running around? Don’t bring the nicest 13×9 you own. Is it a sit-down, adults-only soiree? Dress that casserole up a bit!
Remember the Hostess
Bring the hostess a “happy.” This is what my mom and I call little gifts. You don’t have to buy her an expensive trinket or bottle of wine. In fact, a DIY or homemade gift like a tin of muffins or biscuits for her to enjoy for breakfast the next day is so much more personal than something store-bought. Even the tiniest “happy” goes a long way. On that note, sending a thank you note after the party is customary. Sure, you can send your own sister a “thank you” text for hosting, but handwritten thank you notes are always appreciated.
Let Guests Go First
Don’t be too generous when serving yourself. One of the best parts about potlucks (aside from the friendships and fun!) is trying all the amazing food your friends prepared. But if you’re toward the beginning of the serving line, don’t pile your plate up with portions that would feed you for a week. Remember, everyone else has a plate to fill, too. Once every guest has gone through the line, you can always return for seconds.
WATCH: Mind Your Manners: The Etiquette of Leftovers
Leave the Leftovers
And finally, at the end of the night, there’s the never-ending etiquette of leftovers. In simple terms, it’s usually inappropriate to take leftovers home after a party unless the hostess specifically asks you to. If you brought a six pack of beer that went unfinished or a few bottles of wine that went unopened, please leave those behind. Consider it a “thank you” to the hostess and leave the leftover wine to her as a gift.
It’s never a good look to show up with your own Tupperware in anticipation you’ll take home this week’s meal prep. And definitely don’t take leftovers for yourself out of a dish someone else brought. If the hostess tells you to take your dish’s leftovers home at the end of the night, by all means go ahead, but never arrive with the expectation of leftovers.
If you’re a guest, it’s always polite to offer to help clean up, but if you’re the hostess, don’t ask for help cleaning up.
This is a lot to remember, but if you’ve been reading this article and thinking, “Isn’t this all common sense?” you’re probably an amazing potluck guest and host already. Remember: bring the dish you signed up for; offer to help; be considerate of others; be mindful of leftovers; have a great time! Of course, follow up with a thank you note and you’re sure to be invited back.