Dear Wedding Maven,
I’m getting married next year at my parents’ house. I was thinking about having a potluck reception and asking people to contribute a dish instead of hiring a caterer. It seems friendly and old-fashioned to me (and it would save me money), but I’m not sure how to do it. Would I put a card in the invitation asking people to bring a dish?
You’ve accidentally hit upon one of my pet peeves, which is the misuse of the term “potluck.” A potluck dinner is when a group decides to get together, finds a date mutually agreeable to all of them, and then, rather than put the burden on one person, everyone contributes a dish. This is common for book clubs, church groups, neighbors, and other groups where people get together on a regular or semi-regular basis. It is charming and friendly, and a great way for friends to see each other, and try new dishes.
However, what you’re proposing is more like a BYOB, only with the food. You want to be the host of the party but you want others to provide the food. There are communities where this is common for weddings, but my guess is you’re not part of one of those communities or you wouldn’t be writing to ask my opinion.
Personally, I’m not a fan of this idea. I think once you’re an adult, it’s rude to invite people to a party (any party, let alone a wedding) and then tell them they’re expected to provide the food. I believe everyone should host the party he or she can afford to host. If that means that you serve cake and punch to a lot of people, or a full dinner to a handful of guests, then so be it. I also think it has logistical issues. Should out of town guests bake a casserole and come with it on the plane, or buy a pan of brownies at the local bakery? Would you wind up with five pans of mac and cheese, but no salads? How will heating and serving the food work?
Having said all that, I do think there’s a way to modify this idea, not a potluck, but a family catered event.
Pick 5-6 close friends, relatives, or close family friends that you know are wonderful cooks. With each of them have this conversation. “Aunt Edna, I want my wedding reception to have a family feel to it. You’re such a wonderful cook, I was wondering if, as your wedding gift to us, you would consider cooking for the wedding reception?” Make this request about their talents, not about your need.
If you pick the right people, they will probably be overjoyed to have a meaningful way to participate in your wedding and help you. You should pick one of the cooks and ask her to head up the organization and meal planning. You’ll need to give some thought to things like how to heat the food, who will serve it, what to serve it in, what to serve it on, tablecloths, etc. These are all things that a caterer normally handles. Unless the cooking squad offers to handle these things for you, you will incur some expenses. Also, given that this is at your parents' house, you'll want to run this idea by them BEFORE asking others. Your mom may not want her relatives and friends using her kitchen.
If everyone agrees, then the three most important things to remember are first, once they’ve agreed, you offer opinions when asked, but otherwise back off. Remember, these are family and friends, not hired help, you may not get to plan the menu. The second is, thank them profusely, at the time you ask, throughout the planning process, and in public, at the wedding itself. Third, don’t let these women feel taken advantage of. Don’t save money by having friends provide food, and then have absurdly large professional flower decorations, or ask them to wear black-tie dresses. Keep the entire wedding casual, with a down-home, friendly feel. Make sure plenty of other friends and family are asked to take turns serving, etc. so that these wonderful women can enjoy the wedding as well.
Good luck. I’d love to hear how this works out for you.
Do you have a question about wedding traditions, etiquette or relationships? Write the Wedding Maven at firstname.lastname@example.org