New Zealanders LOVE their potluck dinners. When I first came here 16 years ago, I was puzzled and disturbed in equal measure by this cultural staple. Of course I get it. I get it’s No.8 wire thinking, it’s hangi wannabe-ness, it’s diehard democracy and the fact that it gets the women’s vote. But it still drives me a little bit crazy. For anybody not born into this great tradition, here is my attempt to clear up the conundrums, relieve the doubt and of course, take the piss like any civilized society does of it’s most embedded rituals.
Potluck Dinner v Bring a Plate
I quickly worked out that a Potluck Dinner is the slightly more formal and substantial version of ‘Bring a Plate’, which may be the instruction with an invitation to a shared lunch or morning tea. Anytime before the ‘I don’t have to pretend I don’t want a drink’ hour. That will vary. Baby showers, work leaving-do’s-at-work, small charitable fundraisers, school fundraisers, and local community events of all persuasions can be accompanied by the instruction to ‘bring a plate’. This means covering a plate or platter with anything from cheese and biscuits to homebaked muffins or cakes and everything inbetween. Size is up to you – just how generous do you need to appear? Save your good serving plate and platter for the occasions when you won’t lose it if you leave it. Otherwise, plastic if you aren’t the colour of Kermit, or edible potato starch if you are. Tongs are the Kiwi serving implement of choice. Even for soup.
There are stories of expats like myself arriving for such an occasion literally with nothing more than an empty plate and a bottle of wine. Fears for crockery supply shortages duly allayed, the culprit will proceed to drink themselves into a stupour, not wanting to eat the feast to which they have made no contribution.
The Rules – Bring a Plate
There are no rules. EXCEPT
- It will be duly noted if you merely buy cheese slices and crackers at the dairy on the way – because you couldn’t be arsed to put any effort in.
- Packets of chips and dips are regarded as above, or that you have no culinary skills but perversely will be gratefully tolerated because everybody loves chips and dips. Especially if children are present.
- Nut and/or bhuja mixes are more suited to an adult-only gathering where those stressing about hip and gut expansion can tell themselves it’s the healthy alternative to 2.
- Muffins, while a national obsession, are VERY hard to get right and unless straight out of the oven will probably be stodgy and quite compromised in the flavour department. Nothing says Edmonds Cookbook (a Kiwi religious publication) like the taste of baking powder in whatever flavour muffin you were aiming for.
- Bought muffins look super and provide that cakey lovliness better than homemade.
- Ditto cakes EXCEPT bought cakes or cakes out a packet which NEVER live up to their temptress allure.
- Bought chocolate dips provided with strawberries should disappear off the plate and be secretly stashed away for when the host is re-decorating and it’s time to strip the paint.
- Celery/carrot/cucumber/capsicum cut into strips for dipping – what were you thinking? Never able to satisfy enough dip on one strip for their needs, guests will run the risk of a substantial let-down or be forced to commit the unsanitary crime of double dipping, thus contaminating accompanying dip with their saliva. Therefore – at FAMILY ONLY – or swingers – parties.
- Lollies provided by childfree attendees at a gathering of big and smalls. We hate you.
The Rules – Potluck Dinner
- If your inner voice is screaming ‘What is a potluck dinner?’ – ask. You will avoid the above scenario.
- If your inner voice is asking ‘entrée, mains or dessert?’ – ask. Or if, like me, you see an opportunity to be lazy, take pre-dinner nibbles. (See 2 & 3 in ‘The Rules – Bring a Plate’)
- Don’t go to any effort in the display department, chances are your dish will be superfluous and left on the bench in the corner above the dog’s bowl. In sniffing distance of the dog.
- Unless you have a signature smash hit,an offering of the main kiwi foodgroup – meat – doesn’t mean stressing about how to cook it. A contribution for charring on the barbie is fine.
- The other kiwi foodgroup – carbs – can include an homage to the glory of comfort food. Potatoes, diced and fried, kumara of all colours, tossed with vermicelli, pasta AND noodles, baked under a coating of béchamel sauce with extra cheese will rock out of it’s pot. Sprinkle with sesame/sunflower/pumpkin seeds and it will be included in the health food section of the table.
- If you’re instructed, or you’ve opted for dessert, whipped cream made exotic with marshmallows, M&M’s and grapes is easy and a surefire success. As is the one with melted Mars Bars, bananas, extra caramel sauce and, um, whipped cream.
- If hosting, consider whether you have included a fully trained current holder of a first aid certificate on your guest list. If a guest, bring one with you incase this has been overlooked.
- The potluck dinner suits bulimics down to the ground upon which they chunder.
Above all, remember that flouting of any or all of the rules at either of these occasions will be made possible with the addition of alcohol. However, whether it’s a 6-pack of boutique beers, a couple of bottles of organic red – or even a cask of cardonnay and a tray of Lion Red – it is NEVER ok to take your un-imbibed contribution home, as used to be the case with the terribly tight middle class dinner party tradition of the Home Counties. So to be sure, drink it all yourself. It is the Kiwi way. As you leave, kiss the hosts, (once, not on both cheeks, this is not meterosexual Europe), pat the children on the head and cuddle the dog…..no cuddle the children, pat the hosts, kiss the dog…..no, oh I don’t know. Maybe that marshmallow, Mars Bar dessert needs a glug of the brandy I saw by the stove…….
I will providing a searing review of the said TT middle class DPT of the Home Counties in my next blog. One to watch.