The Pros and Cons of the Potluck Dinner

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Potlucks are a wonderful way for everyone to eat more for less. But it's not necessarily healthy, and you have to guard against looking cheap.

This summer, I traveled to Alaska, where I attended a potluck held in my honor. After we had gorged on goodies like ginger-marinated salmon and mesclun salad with chicken and grilled sweet potatoes, someone suggested that potlucks are a great frugal hack.

She’s right. If I were unemployed or underemployed, I’d be attending or hosting potlucks as often as I could get away with it. Consider that…

  • A whole lot of filling dishes get brought to potlucks: lasagna, casseroles, pasta salads, etc.
  • So do a whole lot of last-minute supermarket grabs: sliced meats, fried chicken, cheeses, fruit and/or vegetable plates, cookies, and pies.
  • If you’re lucky, somebody will bake a ham.

Best of all, you can eat as much as you want, and the host will invariably send you home with some leftovers. If you’re really lucky, you can score the ham bone and make a big pot of soup later.

And it’s all for the cost of one dish. The food you bring doesn’t have to cost very much. It could even be free.

Frugal, not cheap

You may be thinking, “What an illegitimus frugalis that woman is.” But don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting you show up with a 99-cent bag of potato chips, especially if you can afford to bring something better. But if you’re hurting for cash, you have two options: spend more than you can afford or get creative.

For example, beverages are often in short supply at potlucks. Soda is a frequent loss leader, so check supermarket and drugstore sales.

Watch for inexpensive drink mixes too. I buy Wyler’s sugar-free lemonade for a buck at Walgreens, which works out to 33 cents per two-quart pitcher. Add the juice of a lemon (or lime) to improve the flavor for a few cents more.

In Alaska, the hostess didn’t want me to bring anything, but she finally agreed to let me contribute soft drinks. These cost me nothing at all: I used coupons for two free 12-packs from the My Coke Rewards program. In fact, the store was running a “buy two and get one free” special, so I wound up with three gratis 12-packs.

Neither sodas nor lemonade mixes are particularly healthy. But do you want to go to this potluck or not? You’re broke, remember?

Get fed with stale bread

Deviled eggs are always a big hit because everybody loves them but nobody likes to make them. Get the cheapest eggs you can – they’re frequent loss leaders too. Boil eight of the cackleberries. Cut them in half and whomp the yolks together with a little mayo, a squirt of mustard, and some salt and pepper.

Now you’ve got a dish that makes people happy. You’ve also still got the makings for a couple of scrambled-egg sandwiches later in the week.

When I was really broke, the food bank I visited always had tons of bread, including some very high-end varieties. Assuming you have even a few pantry basics, here are a few ways to turn slightly stale bread into potluck fodder:

  • Garlic bread: Slice, butter, sprinkle with minced garlic and fresh herbs, heat in oven. Unemployment version: soft margarine, garlic powder, and a little dried oregano and basil.
  • Bruschetta: Like garlic bread, broil with (if possible) a little chopped tomato, cheese, or whatever you have on hand. You can even use canned tomatoes if you drain them really well.
  • Crostini: Like bruschetta, only small and thin. Toast small rounds of bread until crispy, drizzle with olive oil, and add kosher or sea salt, cheese, chopped tomatoes, or whatever. (Google “crostini recipes” or “bruschetta recipes.”)
  • Pita chips: Cut pita into strips. Toss with a little oil, sprinkle with herbs or salt, and bake in a low oven until crisp. (Variation: Check your fridge shelves for packets of Parmesan cheese and red pepper from back when you used to have pizza and breadsticks delivered.)

Survival tactics

Remember the old story called “Stone Soup”? A whole lot of people contributed one item each, and pretty soon there was a big meal for everyone.

It might be time for stone soup in real life. The national unemployment rate in August was 9.1 percent, and plenty of the jobs that are available don’t pay very well. Young adults are particularly hard-hit if they have lots of student loans.

So organize a monthly community feed with close friends. The more fortunate among you might bake that ham, or pick up a rotisserie chicken on the way home from work.

Others might be bringing deviled eggs and crostini, or toting pitchers of lemonade. But everyone will be fed, both physically and emotionally. Breaking bread together is important. Even if it’s slightly old bread.

More stories from Donna Freedman:

Stacy Johnson

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