Years ago, when I was in college in upstate New York and couldn’t return home to Texas for the holidays, I attended a Thanksgiving potluck at a schoolmate’s house. Thanks in great part to my lack of planning, I single-handedly ruined the meal.
At the time, those seated around the table were too kind to point fingers. But I’d been asked to bring the potatoes, and my naive contribution -- mashed potatoes in a household of sweet potato devotees -- left a palpable sadness in the air.
I sometimes imagine that family gathered in subsequent years, whispering to one another as they passed that year’s bounty back and forth. “Remember that terrible Thanksgiving when we didn’t have sweet potatoes at all?” They should never have trusted a newcomer with such a crucial mission.
In hindsight, I should’ve discussed my dish with the host beforehand. Had I done so, I would’ve brought both types of potatoes -- there’s no Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes where I come from.
Now I know to do my research. Being a gracious and memorable Thanksgiving potluck guest requires just two things: Bring a showstopper of a dish and stay out from under the host’s feet.
When picking a dish to bring, imagine foods that fill a niche or have an air of surprise. Another stuffing is always well-received, for instance, so a warm barley and kale salad with roasted pears and candied prosciutto might be a welcome alternative to another bread-based filling.
A side dish hearty enough to double as a vegetarian entree hits the mark, too -- think sweet potato cakes topped with a creamy, sage-scented mushroom ragout. That is, unless you’re asked to bring a specific dish, in which case you’ll do best to respect the host’s wishes.
Low-maintenance dishes served at room temperature, like a savory pissaladiere with radicchio and spiced ricotta, or food you can reheat in its serving vessel in the microwave are perfect potluck choices.
If, on the other hand, your dish requires refrigerator or oven space at your host’s home, or even more so a burner on the stove or countertop space, arrange those details ahead of time. Chances are your host is preparing the regal bird and will have his or her hands -- and oven -- occupied when you arrive.
Equally important at a Thanksgiving potluck -- as important a potluck as ever there was -- are logistics, so keep in mind the distance you’ll be traveling. Choose a dish that’s not particularly fragile and that doesn’t have too many moving parts. To that end, preparing a dessert like, say, delicate meringues with three garnishes would be risky.
This year, I’m celebrating two Thanksgiving dinners with family, both of them potlucks. I’m still mulling over my options. One thing’s for sure, though. I’ll not be bringing the potatoes.