Potluck psychology: Bedeviled by a usurper

July 4, 2010 

The Fourth of July is the holiday of fireworks, parades and potluck picnics. It marks the center of the summer covered dish-toting season.

Most people have the dish that they take to every potluck. For one of my friends, it's seven-layer dip; for another, it's ham biscuits. Mine is deviled eggs.

I consider myself the queen of deviled eggs. I wrote a book on them. On the potluck menu, they are mine. Most of those with whom I regularly associate know this.

Deviled eggs might be up for grabs if I'm testing recipes for a cookbook or a column. In that case, I issue advance warning that the guests will be serving as crash-test dummies for mystery edibles.

Most are actually excited about the idea. My husband, a veteran test pilot of four cookbook missions, mutters, "Poor fools."

Staking claim

A younger friend who was hosting a summer potluck decided to organize the food so that the menu would have a little more variety. I understand the impulse. I have attended potlucks where the oven-free generation's offerings indicated that they thought cheese pizza, corn chips and salsa constituted a balanced menu. (Well, there is protein and a vegetable.)

She set up a wiki where the guests could list their contributions and see what others were bringing. A wiki is a page on a website that a bunch of people can access, I think. I didn't worry about what it was; I just followed the directions.

When I got to the wiki, someone else had taken deviled eggs.

Didn't they know those were mine? I own nine deviled-egg plates and a deviled egg Halloween costume, for goodness' sake.

The polite message at the top of the page asked guests not to duplicate dishes.

I was adrift, as if I'd lost my very personality. If not deviled eggs, then what?

After a few deep, cleansing breaths, I settled on a green bean salad as a reliable, if inferior, alternative.

The experience made me think that others must have a similar feeling of "my potluck dish, myself." With a minimum of psychoanalysis, one can interpret covered-dish menus and those who fill them.

Into the cook's mind

Here are some common foods that populate potluck parties and what they say about the cooks:

Hot dip (artichoke, crab, etc.) that contains nearly an entire jar of mayonnaise. I'd never made hot artichoke dip before a friend requested it for a recent birthday party. However, I knew from sampling it at parties before that this dip must be kept warm. When it cools, it reverts to sticky gobs of mayo. So I borrowed a ceramic serving dish with a candle warmer from a neighbor.

About an hour and a half into the party, the dish snapped with a loud crack, and fell to the table in two pieces with a small burst of flame. As I always say, it's not a party until someone breaks a dish, preferably someone else's. In my case, this dip says: "If it's easy, I will find a way to mess it up spectacularly." (Like the time I ruined slice-and-bake cookies.)

Unidentified crunchy-topped casserole. There might be broccoli underneath that layer of bagged stuffing mix and butter, or there might be chicken. Hard to tell, even after you eat it. This recipe says: "I got a real deal on 90 cases of cream of mushroom soup."

A gallon of cucumber and onion salad. That's obvious: "We grew so many cucumbers, we're practically bathing with them. Next potluck, cucumber quiche."

No matter what it says about you, you just can't stifle your potluck style. I get together with a group of friends for a potluck every couple of months. One is a vegetarian. She's not one of those reactionary vegetarians who erupt into a lecture upon the arrival of a roasted chicken. But it's a small group, so most of us bring vegetarian dishes that all can enjoy.

Except one. You can bet she'll show up with a sausage- and pepperoni-filled breakfast casserole.

I groan internally at the fatty, meaty smell, then realize that it is irresistible perfume for my saber-toothed soul. I follow a small, polite scoop with an ample chunk.

Give thanks for those who let their potluck flags fly. But hands off the deviled eggs.

Reach Debbie Moose at

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