Why are there so many potluck Shabbat meals in Philadelphia? How do I decide what to bring? Are there other pieces of potluck etiquette I should know about?
Puzzled by potlucks
You're absolutely right that the Philadelphia Jewish scene is ripe with potluck meals! The recent article in the Jewish Exponent talks about this trend. This coming Shabbat, at least four organizations are hosting potlucks: Hillel's Grad Network (where I work!), Moishe House Philadelphia, and the Collaborative are all hosting Friday night dinners, and Minyan Tikvah is hosting a potluck after services on Saturday. Philly even has an organization devoted solely to potlucks: the Shabbat Potluck Coalition (Fortunately, they avoided this weekend's scheduling conflicts.)
Here's why I believe potlucks are so popular:
1) They're cheap! Anyone can put together a potluck for any number of people without incurring increasing costs as the number of guests goes up. More people means more people bringing food.
2) They encourage participation. More people contributing means more people feeling ownership.
3) They build community. I think sharing meals is always positive, and sharing home-cooked dishes cooked by different people fosters a deep and personal connection with the community.
4) They accommodate different levels of kashrut observance. Different groups handle kashrut at potlucks in different ways, but at the most basic level, if everyone's bringing something that fits his or her level of kashrut, then everyone will have something to eat.
In terms of what to bring, follow the lead of the event organizers. When you sign up for a Grad Network potluck, for example, you'll receive a google doc with a list of what's needed. Cups aren't on on the list, so don't bring them. (At Grad Network potlucks, the organizers provide the paper goods.) If you're going to cook, make a dish that you take a lot of pride in, like a family recipe or something that's proven to be a crowd pleaser. If you're going to buy something, choose an item that's a little out of the ordinary (namely, not carrots and hummus or chips and salsa. I promise, someone else will have brought them).
One of my friends likes to say, "Philly is really good at potlucks," by which he means that the food is usually of a high quality and there's plenty to go around. While I tend to agree, there are still some basic tenets that make potlucks even better. The Potluck Coalition has a great set of guidelines called How to Be Potlucky. Here's my own list of potluck etiquette tips:
1) Make/bring enough food. Aim to feed 8-10 people. If you're coming with two friends, you're each responsible for your own contribution.
2) When some participants spend all day in the kitchen and others clearly show up with whatever they found at the corner store on their way to dinner, it creates an imbalance. Put in some effort.
3) Don't volunteer to bring challah if you know you're going to be late. This is one of my personal biggest potluck pet peeves.
4) Bring your own serving utensil and keep it with your food (this is both a kashrut and an allergy issue).
5) Unless the host asks you for leftovers, take home whatever you bring. That includes utensils, food and bowls. No one wants to track you down on Sunday to return your casserole dish.
6) Bring your own special equipment. You might be really excited about your cold cantaloupe soup, but if the host wasn't expecting soup, don't expect there will be bowls or spoons to eat it.
7) Pre-prep your food. Don't ask the host if you can heat something up, borrow a cutting board, use some olive oil to make salad dressing, or otherwise enter the kitchen.
8) Help clean up. While potlucks are one of the easiest kinds of meal to host, they can still create havoc on someone's house. At the very least, clear your own plate. If you're feeling generous, offer to help move furniture, wipe tables or, at the end of the night, help get everyone out the door.
Enjoy this weekend's potlucking festivities!