As my friends arrived, bearing plastic containers, bowls covered in plastic wrap, and baking dishes cocooned in foil, my bare kitchen counter was transformed into a banquet table - and a rather impressive one, if we did say so ourselves.
"This doesn't look like the potlucks I grew up with," one friend remarked.
"Yeah," another agreed, "nothing here's held together with a layer of mayonnaise."
Instead, there were salads of dill-scented beets and of pomegranate-studded Brussels sprouts, a flaky pie filled with Swiss chard, a pan of mac and cheese elevated with smoked Gouda and butternut squash, and a Moroccan-inspired take on shepherd's pie made with lamb, harissa, and winter greens. For dessert: Coconut rice pudding with mango, and a chocolate-studded pecan torte.
We had help, in the form of Modern Potluck, a new cookbook by New Hope author Kristin Donnelly designed to update the casual, communal meal format for the 21st-century cook.
Donnelly has serious gourmet credentials: She was an editor at Food & Wine for years before going freelance as a food writer and recipe developer. And she makes a persuasive case for why it's high time for the potluck to make a comeback - and why it just might be the key to surviving the holiday party season.
Donnelly herself grew up on potlucks - lazy dinners with her extended family, who all lived within a half-hour of her parents' home in Bucks County and who arrived bearing platters and crockpots. She left that behind when she moved to Brooklyn for a while.
"When I was in my 20s and first learning to cook, I loved to do full-on dinner parties, and shop and cook over the course of two days," she said. "But I found I just couldn't do that after I had a baby. I didn't have the time."
So, she rediscovered the potluck - and found that it's become cool again (or for the first time), thanks to the growth of potluck cookbook clubs.
"I love new cookbooks and it's a way to taste new food all at once from a cookbook, and to gather people together," she said.
Donnelly heard from fans on social media that they were using her cookbook in that way, hosting Modern Potluck potlucks.
I decided to give that a try.
For a Type A host, like me, the hard part was a change in mind-set. I had to suppress my worst control-freak, cook-everything-from-scratch-and-way-too-much-of-it impulses, and relinquish control.
But, after I found my Zen, it was easy.
I sent around an email invitation to my "cheffiest" friends, and made a sign-up list on a Google spreadsheet. I stocked my bar cart, set out plates, found an ice bucket (and, in a moment of weakness, bought some emergency cheese and crackers). I let the menu be what it would.
Then, the day of the party, came the payoff: Instead of preparing for two days, I started cooking just a few hours in advance.
Having the right recipes helped: Donnelly selected dishes that are potluck-friendly, meaning they can stand up to transportation, leisurely serving, and reheating.
For salads, she advises sticking to roasted vegetables or sturdier greens like kale, and looking for recipes with a high acid content, which helps keep bad bacteria at bay. For hot dishes, she points to options that can stand up to reheating; casseroles and stews are better than steaks.
Donnelly even offers a primer on how to make fruit salad that isn't lame (use seasonal fruit and dress it with fresh herbs, nuts, and a honey-vanilla or ginger-lime syrup), and suggests seasonal variations on potluck classics like potato salads and deviled eggs (I made a wintry smoked paprika and rosemary version).
She could've called the book Modern Picnic or Modern Buffet, as the same dishes would work well for any casual get-together. But each recipe is paired with a potluck-prep note about transportation, reheating, and serving.
She also offers a few potluck rules, both for hosts and guests, to make the party run more smoothly.
For hosts: Provide extra serving utensils, or remind guests to bring their own. Offer a pen and place cards for guests to label their food - or line your table with butcher paper and let them write directly on the surface. Clean up your kitchen in case people need to do last-minute food preparation or reheat something in your oven. Stock the bar. Provide plates, cups, and napkins. And consider stocking extra to-go containers in case people want to share leftovers.
For guests, there's one rule that really matters: Bring what you say you'll bring.
There are practical considerations, like food safety - Donnelly advises that most dishes can sit out safely for up to two hours - but also there's just ample opportunity for culinary experimentation.
Many of the recipes we tried turned out to be deceptively simple, like a bourbon-pecan cake that's mixed in the food processor - no bowl required! - or a "borscht" salad that came together with just a few minutes of active preparation. The results, though, were delicious.
As dinner wound down and guests took their plates home with them, I discovered another potluck perk: cleanup went quickly. By the time the last guests went home, taking their platters and bowls with them, my kitchen was back to normal - and ready for the next potluck.