It’s a tired old joke that we Mormons eat a lot of green Jell-O salad. We don’t, really — not anymore, anyway — but that’s the joke.
Oh sure, there may be a few of us who eat Jell-O in private every now and again, but rarely will you see a platter of it at ward potluck dinners. That’s because someone’s bound to make a joke of it. And none of us want to be the subject of any joke, especially not at potluck dinners. We want our food to be liked. And we want it to be eaten.
If you’re like me, you can’t help but take your dish’s performance a little personally. Say, for example, no one eats my wife’s green bean casserole. Well I take that as an attack on my family
Oh, we’re not good enough for you, are we?
However, if the casserole is gone by the time I reach it, I’ll make a point of telling everyone my wife made it and I’ll respect them all for having such good taste.
Silly, I know. But somehow the ward potluck dinner has evolved from a meal into a showcase. Folks don’t bring just anything; they bring the best they have to offer.
No one will admit to this, of course. We all claim that our dishes are mere trifles, the simplest thing we could throw together at the moment, the very least of our normally marvelous culinary exploits.
Women sometimes do the same thing with clothes. “Oh this old thing?” they’ll say. “Why I’ve had this hanging in my closet for years. I never thought to actually wear it.”
Nonsense. We all slave in the kitchen to prepare our dishes.
Well, I shouldn’t say “all.” Not everyone is as devoted. You’ll always have at least one plate of store-bought doughnuts. But overall, most people try extra hard to make their dishes great.
Don’t think for an instant, though, that great cooking is the only ingredient to success. If you want your dish consumed, you’ve got to play the game and you’ve got to play smart.
Location Location Location
Most wards use those long folding tables to hold the food. When it’s time to eat, lines of people form on both sides of the table.
If you want your dish to do well, place it in the center of the table where both sides of traffic will have access to it. If you put it on the edge of the table, the opposite side will be reluctant to reach across the food and scoop themselves a portion.
And speaking of scoops, put two serving spoons with your food instead of one. People will often pass over food simply because a serving spoon isn’t immediately available. Don’t lose those precious few because of lack of silverware.
You have to be careful though. The people organizing the meal will try to steal one of your serving spoons and place it with a dish that doesn’t have one. If that happens, steal it back. Remember, this is war.
Choose your dish wisely
My wife hates mayonnaise. She abhors the stuff, in fact. Simply mention the word and her face tightens in such a display of disgust that it nearly caves in on itself.
This becomes extremely problematic when we go to potluck dinners. It seems that half of the food there is made of mayonnaise: potato salad, pasta salad, tuna salad, ham salad, acorn salad, pretty much anything that ends in salad.
My wife won’t touch any of it. In fact, give her a ten-foot pole and she’ll beat you with it before she puts it anywhere near the mayonnaise.
She’s not alone. I know quite a few people who hate mayonnaise. Or nuts. Or cilantro. Or curry. Or whatever.
When choosing which dish to prepare, avoid the often unpopular ingredients. They’ll only minimize your audience. Instead, think globally. Prepare those dishes that everyone likes.
This obviously means that you should avoid dishes no one can identify.
It’s fun to be exotic, yes. But it’s also dangerous. Most people don’t like experimenting with food. And even if they do, they won’t take much of it for fear they might not like it. And, even if they do like it, by the time they’ve finished everything else, they’ll be too full to go back for seconds.
Your goal is to make something that everyone knows they want just by looking at it. You want them fighting over the spoon. And once they have the spoon, you want them to be incredibly selfish, scooping themselves massive portions with little regard to anyone else.
Know Your Competition
Direct competition can be a problem. If someone has made a dish similar to yours you’ll end up sharing the same audience. Both of you will suffer.
The obvious solution is to move your dish closer to the front of the line so that people see it and dip from it first. But that’s a little tacky.
Your best bet is to study the playing field well before the dinner begins. Know who’s famous for making what. And if you see an untapped niche, go for it.
Eat Your Own
Position yourself toward the front of the line. When you get to your own dish, scoop yourself a big portion. People will notice your eagerness, suspect you know something they don’t, and follow suit.
This initiates a chain reaction because as more people scoop from the dish, it becomes increasingly more enticing to the next guy. Suddenly it’s a popular choice.
Sneaky, you say? Of course it is. But that’s what separates the great potluckers from those who leave with leftovers. They cook well and they sell well. They understand more than anyone that old adage, “You are what you bring to eat.”
Pass the Jell-O.