How to Prepare for (Thanksgiving) Potlucks

I don’t like potlucks. Nearly every potluck dinner I’ve attended has been a culinary disaster.  That’s because the potluck dinners I’ve been to are often poorly managed so you end up with a mess of notes, textures, and colors and an excessive amount of one thing or another (usually protein and sweets).  Most people don’t give any thought to pairings or how to best complement the main dish (if there is one).  They just bring their greatest hits, which leads to gluttony.

Why People Overeat at Thankgiving Potlucks
Typical Thanksgiving potluck has host providing the turkey (main), stuffing and gravy.  Host asks guests to bring everything else.  Here’s what often happens at a poorly managed potluck.

Most guests aren’t thinking about how to complement the main course.  They’re thinking about how to not embarrass themselves so they make conservative choices and bring one of their greatest hits.   Problem is, greatest hits are rarely the dishes that complement the main.  Lightly sauteed zucchini w/red onions and garlic?  Who brings that?  No, people bring their famous sausage w/pasta and zucchini cooked in ranch dressing.  Or macaroni and bacon casserole.  Or cheddar potato casserole. Or ham chili.  Most of these are meant to be main dishes and are basically soaked in gravy.  They’re redundant, they don’t go well with turkey w/stuffing and gravy.

When people eat familiar food, they expect a certain feeling, a taste, memory.  When they don’t get the satisfaction they crave, they eat more of it, eat until they get what they’re seeking.  For instance, when someone takes a bite of sausage and then takes a bite of turkey with gravy, they’re unlikely to get the pleasure — salt and fat — they’re seeking from the turkey because the the bite of salty and savory sausage adjusts the palate, making it more difficult to taste salty and savory.  So more salt and gravy is added to the turkey, more bites taken until one gets what one wants.

Now try taking a couple bites of lightly sauteed unsalted zucchini and then take a bite of turkey w/gravy.  Completely different experience compared to example above because the contrast is so sharp.  Less salt and gravy — fewer calories — to reach satisfaction.  Eat and prepare meals this way, I guarantee you’ll eat less without sacrificing pleasure.  All it requires is a bit of patience, patience to handle slightly bitter note in the finish of the zucchini.

I was watching a kid fuck up his palate by eating donuts and drinking Mountain Dew at the same time.    He’s going to need more and more sugar to get the satisfaction he craves, which means he will gradually eat more and more donuts, drink more and more Mountain Dew in one sitting.  He’s probably going to grow up to be diabetic and obese.  He might as well be doing heroin.  Every time you see someone eat like this, think of heroin, get that image in your head.

How to Manage and Host a Potluck
Disclaimer: I’m not an experienced potluck host. Not an expert.
I don’t host potlucks because it’s too much hassle to manage people’s feelings and egos.  I let guests bring booze, that’s it, not even desert.  But if I had to host a potluck, I’d let guests — by assignment so not too much of something — bring the mains, drinks and desert, and I’d make the appetizers and salads.  That gives guests the option to shine (main) or to not do much (booze), or to be conservative and popular (dessert).  It allows me to make sure each main is properly complemented by appetizers.  And more importantly, the meal won’t fuck up guest palates and put them in a food coma.

Traditional Thanksgiving potlucks, where logistics (big ass turkey) force the host to serve the main, I’d avoid.  The fear of embarrassment is too strong for most to resist the urge to make complementary sides instead of rehashed greatest hit.  I’d insist guests only bring drinks (never enough booze), bread and maybe desert or whatever it is they need to meet their dietary needs (eg. vegan butter).  Thanksgiving dinner should be simple and there’s usually (always) too much food anyway.  It doesn’t take much time to make simple sides like roasted squash or sauteed zucchini and it’ll make postprandial cleanup much less confusing.

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