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Dinner hosts put modern twist on traditional potlucks

Friends Ashley Morken and Kelsey Sargent, both of Fargo, are currently planning their second “Harvest Table” potluck dinner with their friends. The modern potluck meal aims to gather friends for good food and fun. Kelsey Sargent / Special to The Forum1 / 2
Thoughtful details like place cards and an autumn-inspired menu helped make a local group of friends’ “Harvest Table” potluck a success. Last year’s potluck was held at a rented cabin to go with the rustic autumn theme. Kelsey Sargent / Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO – If hotdish is on the potluck table, it’s made with gourmet cheese and fresh herbs. Modern potluck gatherings have panache, and they’re a popular way for friends to celebrate togetherness while enjoying good food. But that’s not to say traditional church basement potlucks (Tater Tot hotdish? Jell-O? Cheez Whiz on buns?) have lost their place. Potlucks are just evolving, says Ellen Shafer, who regularly hosts them. “It’s such a familiar word up here. Really, is that a trend? I don’t think it ever left,” says the Fargo woman. “It’s not a trend to us, but what might be trendy is the more adventurous approach to the food we’re serving.” Shafer and her friends started a supper club a decade ago. Guests bring a dish to share based off a word theme, such as “bon,” the French word for “good.” It makes every meal a surprise, she says, and it’s their take on a potluck. “We trust that we all enjoy good food,” she says. Friends Ashley Morken and Kelsey Sargent, both of Fargo, are currently planning a “Harvest Table” potluck for late October. Their approach to the potluck dinner is more traditional. Held for the first time last year, the Harvest Table potluck dinner has a seasonal theme and set dinner menu. “If you said ‘potluck,’ I think of work potlucks, and those aren’t my favorite. I actually dread them,” Sargent says. “But if you said ‘Harvest Table’ or ‘elevated potluck,’ I think of the word ‘warm.’ As cheesy as it is, my heart feels warm after spending time with people around good food.” With the holiday season approaching, it’s an ideal time to host a party to celebrate friendship and good food. Planning a modern potluck is a cinch with these tips from Sargent, Morken and Shafer. Set a venue. Whether it’s someone’s home or a rental space, make sure you know where you’ll host the potluck. And make sure all of your guests will fit comfortably. Last year, Morken’s and Sargent’s friends rented a cabin for the harvest potluck to stick with their rustic autumn theme. Embrace a theme (or don’t). Elements like pine, beeswax and wood subtly emphasized the harvest theme of Morken’s potluck last year. The theme carried over to the food, too. They stuck with hearty foods. That way, although it was a potluck, there weren’t any funky flavor mixes. Shafer’s friends nix themes and instead go for words. For instance, one potluck’s word was “stripes,” so each guest brought a dish representing their interpretation of stripes. It keeps things interesting, Shafer says, and starts conversations. Make a dinner plan. Four bags of chips and 15 desserts do not a potluck make. Create a menu and then assign each guest or couple an item to bring, Sargent says. Categories like appetizer, salads, sides, drinks (non-alcoholic and alcoholic, if you choose) and dessert leave the guesswork out of what to bring. “I would have thought that people wouldn’t like to be told what to bring, but I think it worked better because then people didn’t have to spend time planning, but they still felt like they were contributing,” Sargent says. Baked brie with fruit chutney, pear and walnut salad, hearty beef stew, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and pecan pie fit the bill for an autumn gathering. Also make sure to let the host know in advance if you need to heat your dish before it’s served. Shafer and her supper club friends don’t worry about courses. Some people don’t like that, she says, but most enjoy the element of surprise. Once, a potluck was nearly all meat. But it made for a great story. Invite intentionally. For the Harvest Table potluck, Morken wanted to bring together an old group of friends who didn’t see each other often. On the flipside, mixing up the guest list to include old and new friends is fun, Sargent says. “ ‘Make new friends, but keep the old,’ but make sure if anyone being invited who’s ‘new’ knows at least more than one person,” she says. “They might feel pretty awkward if not.” Plan activities. Games like Cards Against Humanity break the ice, and take-home crafts like beeswax candles or painted plant pots are fun mementos. Use name cards. “It feels special and fancier,” Morken says. She set simple name cards on rosemary springs tied with twine. Appoint an organizer. For last year’s Harvest Table potluck, Morken was the organizer. “Someone who will take initiative, who loves bringing people together and someone who wants to organize everyone/everything” is an essential part to a fun potluck, Sargent says. Accept assistance. Hosts often feel pressure to do it all to have the “perfect” party, Shafer says. “What people want is to feel welcome in your home, and that’s as easy as you make it,” she says. “And there’s nothing more welcoming than bringing something to eat and saying, ‘This is what I like to eat at my home.’ ” When people offer to bring something, let them. Leave the dishes in the sink. Allow friends to help with clean-up duties. At the end of the night, you’ll be a happier host. “The goal isn’t necessarily to have the prettiest, most extravagant meal,” Sargent says. “It’s about spending time with your friend-family in a setting that maybe isn’t typical, with amazing food cooked with the greatest of intentions – the rest will fall into place.”

Anna G. Larson

Anna G. Larson is a features reporter with The Forum who writes a weekly column featuring stylish people in Fargo-Moorhead. Larson graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in journalism and joined The Forum in July 2012. She's a Fargo native who enjoys travel, food, baking, fashion, animals, coffee and all things Midwestern. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @msannagrace 

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