A potluck Thanksgiving can be appropriately formal—and less work for Mother.

(Photo by Frank Gruber via Flickr)

If you live in a city far from your family and can’t get home for Thanksgiving.  . .

If you’re a member of a large family and live in the countryside . . .

If you’re a person anywhere in the world who is too busy, too imperiled by stove fear, too damaged by Greatest-Cook-in-the-World-Mother-in-Law phobia . . .  

If you’re a new citizen and want to celebrate your affiliation with your new national identity, but find providing the whole extravaganza (stuffed turkey, gravy, Brussels sprouts that no one eats, khaki-colored green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie) too much to contemplate . . .

If you simply don’t like to cook . . .

Never mind. This is for you!

Potluck dinners take much of the stress out of a feast that comes with built-in stress: long-distance travel; messy group or familial relationships; gatherings mixing both your loving and your tactical friends; your timetable; and molto quadrupled-recipe cooking. It’s easier, that is, as long as you plan.

But potluck? For Thanksgiving?

Certainly! “Potluck” isn’t appropriate only for picnics or Thursday dinners in the church hall. The word doesn’t have to mean sleazy-cheesy, sloppy-slapdash. A potluck dinner’s spirit of cooperation can play an important role in a complex, multifaceted meal like Thanksgiving. “Potluck”  is not only a time-saver for the hostess, it has the rare virtue of binding together everyone at the table—for everyone, cook or non-cook, has contributed to the celebration.

As I always do in my posts for WVFC, I emphasize the virtue of planning. It allows you to be creative and gracious, and so un-stressed on celebration day that everyone still thinks you’re adorable!

Decide on the place. Anything is possible, even a place with no kitchen; your space will inform your menu.

Draw up the guest list with a close relative or friend. He or she will no doubt suggest a few people you have not considered but who should be invited, and some people you’d love to meet. (Also, no doubt, some people you don’t know or don’t like).

Separate the cooks and the non-cooks. Consider what each individual guest can do (don’t think of couples as a unit). Separate the non-cooks into active participants and contributors.

The Organizers

The active non-cooks are the organizers. Their job is to gather all the requirements for the table—after being apprized of the menu and number of guests. They will procure the requisite number of glasses for wine and other beverages, as well as tablecloths, napkins, china, and cutlery. They will set the table on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving, weddings, and other special celebrations seem to be the only occasions when fine family home dining is rescued from under dust covers. It’s a fitting time to polish the silver, unwrap the crystal, and show off the 12-place-setting china that hibernates in a box in the basement. Or the organizers can rent the whole shebang. Rental companies now have wide ranges of tableware, from sleekly modern to fancy “gold”-plated, patterned, and culicued—whatever fits your style.

The beverage organizer ensures that there is a place (other than the refrigerator, which will be chockablock with perishable food) to chill beverages for the whole day (a large tub with ice for chilling). His or her job is also to select and set up the bar in a place in the house or apartment that is not the kitchen or the dining room. There, guests can place their vinous or spirituous or non-alcoholic contributions and subsequently come back for refreshment. The bar baron will keep an eye on it throughout the day; he or she is also responsible for setting up the recycling system—no damming up the kitchen garbage can with fleets of empty bottles or letting them loll over the floor and counters.

The Greeter

There also needs to be a greeter. This post may or may not be taken by the host, depending on his/her place in the cook/non-cook roster. The greeter is not just the smiley person at the door who hugs you and introduces you to at least three other people you may not know. The greeter is the traffic cop at the cross streets when the traffic lights are not working. She/he tells people where to hang their coats. She/he will be armed with a list (mental or on paper) of all the guests and what each person is contributing or responsible for. This host can thus immediately expedite the transfer of each person to the appropriate post and direct goods to the right place without the usual fuss of “Where would you like me to put this?” “Oh, just leave it anywhere.”

Good greeting procedure: “Hello, dear Algernon, thank you so much—what a delightful-looking marshmallow pie! Please do take it straight to the pantry on your left, where Ernestine will put it in a safe place. Do go through to the terrace. Oscar has organized a bar there so cleverly.” Greet; instruct; make comfortable; send them into the flow of the party. As I’ve said: traffic cop.

The Cleanup Crew

The next most important non-cook contribution is made by the team of cleaners-up. They are the folks who clear the table, buffet, or room of unwanted glasses or dirty plates and scrape and stack them neatly for later loading and washing. If they are organized, this should not take them long or deprive them of jollity during the dinner.

Their first organizational task ahead of Thanksgiving Day is to get to know the layout of the kitchen and how the detritus end of it functions—placement of garbage bags, recycling etc. They should have set this up before the other guests have arrived, so that they can jump into their task quickly and efficiently as needed during the evening. At the end, all that needs to be done is to load the dishwasher for the trip to soapy heaven. The dishes left out should be stacked neatly for the host to load after the guests have departed.

Traditionally in catering, the sanitation crew also readies the coffee and tea setups—makes sure the water kettle is filled and out on the side; the coffee is measured, ready to start brewing; the coffee service is ready on a tray with milk jug, sugar, cups, etc., ready to be brought out as necessary. But this is certainly a task for another person.

Inevitably there will be way too much food, so there will be leftovers. The job of portioning and packing should be assigned to someone, whose job it is to supply the ziplock bags to pack small portions of whatever is left over and bring them out at the end so people can take what they like. These clean-up crew members are also responsible for cleaning and repacking into shopping bags the platters, trays, and serving utensils so their owners can retrieve them at the end.

The Contributors

Those were the active non-cooking participants. Now we organize the contributory participants. These are the non-cooks who will volunteer or be asked to contribute the flower arrangement for the table; some wine for the cocktail hour or dinner; non-alcoholic beverages; ice and bar fruit for the bar; coffee and tea and their accompaniments.

Sharing responsibilities like these makes the non-cooks belong to the occasion as much as the occasion belongs to them.

Next post: The menu, the meal