Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dear ESB: Is a potluck wedding REALLY that tacky?

My fiance and I are planning a very DIY, indie, seriously laid back, kickass wedding. Our venue is straight up awesome, it's an old timey town (really a museum but set up as a legit little town) with an adorable white church which we will be having the ceremony in and this amazing barn like building with a huge wrap around porch for the reception. And to make it even better, it is VERY affordable. Now for the smaller details. Our DJ will be my brother-in-law who will be manning the music (aka, playlist that my fiance and i will be putting together over the next 9 months); my mother-in-law to be is a florist and will be doing the flowers as our wedding gift (very minimal, non-extravagant flowers at that, seeing as how i am seriously a no frills kinda girl); a very close musician friend and neighbor of ours will be playing the music for our ceremony; and my father-in-law will be doing the ceremony. 

The area of controversy for this wedding is food. My fiance and I from day one have been very into the idea of having a potluck for our reception. We live in the south, he has a huge family, we have a ton of friends that live in the area, and food is what we do best. It's the south for goodness sakes, food is like a religion here...it brings people together, it's a way of celebrating and socializing, etc. My mom however, is not into the idea at all. She thinks it's a tacky idea, that guests will be offended, that people will be expecting us to basically cater to them. Now keep in mind that my parents don't grasp the concept of laid back and casual. This will not be a huge wedding, there won't be tons of expensive frills, we won't be registering for thousands of dollars worth of stuff we don't need. We simply want an awesome laid back fun party with our closest friends and family. Is a pot luck REALLY that tacky and horrible of an idea??

Already Frustrated

PS:  We will be providing the main stuff like fried chicken and fried catfish as well as drinks and cake.


Dear AF,

I think a potluck wedding is a terrific idea.

Just be aware: You can ask people to bring side dishes, but you can't tell them what to bring, and you certainly can't tell them what to bring it in.

Since you've used the words "laid back" three times here, I assume you're not an uber-obsessive who will have trouble relinquishing control.


(Photos from Nancy + Ethan's potluck wedding by Kirsten Ellis)


  1. yep. i have to agree. pot luck is awesome! i was totally into the idea for ours, but as we are having our wedding in a place that most guests have to travel to it wasn't really practical. go, do it, and take lots of pictures and show us how it all turned out!

  2. Agreed! I say it is YOUR wedding and so do what you want!!!!!!!!!

  3. pot luck wedding! pot luck wedding! yessss.

  4. I'd LOVE to go to a pot luck wedding, omnomnom! The opposite of tacky. Just make sure you ask ppl to bring a smallish side dish or sweet or you'll wind up drowning in a sea of food imho :D

  5. Pot lucks are amazing.

    Re: your mom. Ask her which guests specifically she is concerned about offending. Maybe elderly aunts or something? Then simply don't ask them to bring anything. If it comes up, your mom can tell them that friends volunteered to be involved. Let it be something for the young'uns to participate in.

    Also, while I agree with ESB (no handing out specific recipes) I would make up a list of broad categories and guidelines, because people will ask and you don't want to end up with 95% dessert items. So ask them which category they'd like to be in (salad, side, dessert, whatever) and let them know approximately how many servings you think would be useful (we're talking single batch or double batch, not industrial sized batch).

  6. I would have loved for ours to be pot luck, but lots of people had to travel and I also just wasn't willing to fight that battle with my mother (she would have thought it tacky, but she comes from a place where weddings = massive, fancy, formal blow-out parties). I say do it, and then send pictures (please?).

  7. I think I have to add a caveat here: there ARE lots of people who don't like potlucks and resent them at any time. I'm not actually one of them, but this subject has come up three times in the past month with various of my friends.

    Since you ARE planning to provide the mainstays of the meal, would it be possible to phrase your invitation in a way that makes it seem more of an option than a demand? Something like: "X and I can't wait to share our family's famous-in-three-counties fried chicken, catfish, and [cake] with all of our beloved friends and new family! We know that many of you have equally famous recipes and we would like to invite you to share them with everyone as part of our celebration of family and community" etc etc. That way, the people who LOVE to bring a casserole can, and the people who are completely freaked out by the idea of baking cookies for even 40 people won't feel pressured and resentful.

  8. POT LUCK! No, seriously, I would rather go to a pot luck wedding rather than one so fancy it requires me to buy a new dress. Plus, I find that people want to feel like they are part of your wedding. Actually, the worst weddings I've been to were the ones where we went out of our way to attend only to feel like we wouldn't have been missed if we didn't. A pot luck has inclusiveness built in. Just make sure everyone gets their dishes back!

  9. A potluck is a great idea! I agree with the others on how it's a way to make your guests feel more involved. After all, it's a celebration! I think a table of mismatched serving bowls would be adorable:)

  10. I was invited to an an awesome wedding last year, for which, on the RSVP card, you indicated whether you would be able to bring a dish (and whether it would be sweet or savoury).

    It turned out to be the best meal ever - with everything from gourmet nibbles to grandma's pies AND the bride and groom made their own beer for the night. It was far, far from tacky.

  11. you probably already have a good idea of who you can ask to bring dishes - you know, the people who will be stoked to bring their best postato salad recipe instead of the ones who will gasp and faint at the suggestion

  12. DO IT. one of my friends mothers had a potluck wedding and still says it was one of the best decisions she made.

    it'd be also great of you to have enough food that those who are traveling don't need to bring anything. preparing food in a hotel room is not going to happen, natch.

  13. I think it's a great idea, and a way to hopefully have really great (and meaningful) food, too (none of that function-place chicken-or-beef). The only thing I think is tacky about a wedding is "doing what you think you ought to", not doing what you really both want. And even if you're not giving instructions of what you're getting people to make, it might be handy to make a list of what anybody indicates they will be bringing (if they plan in advance) as some of your closest people will probably ask if there are specific things you want, and this might help give a balanced mix of items. Good luck and have fun!

  14. if you're saving that many duckets because of family/friend help why not just spend some beans on great food?

    some people just suck at cooking, and you don't want 20 bean casseroles. just sayin.

  15. this is the best idea ever! we really wanted a potluck wedding, but ALL of our guests were traveling, so it wouldn't have worked out. in fact, i've been dying to go to a potluck wedding and i love me some fried chicken. wanna invite me?

  16. GREAT advice. Thanks for answering this question...we've been wondering the same.

  17. Not to be a stick in the mud, but I figured I might as well lend a dissenting voice.

    I'm one of those potluck haters. I am not someone who relishes coming up with a dish to bring to an event. Sometimes I feel alone, but I can't be (though maybe I am).

    And, as somebody with a real food allergy that is usually accommodated by caterers at weddings (I've never had an issue), a potluck is close to a guarantee that I won't be able to eat anything.

    Also, if your mom dislikes the idea, who else do you think may? As much as your wedding is for you, it's for your guests too. Your cohort may "get" it, but will there be a group of guests that will feel put-upon? (e.g. everybody of your mom's demographic?). I think that's worth considering.

  18. I love potlucks. However, on whether it will "work out", I think it depends on how many people will there. 50? Awesome. 200? Might get a bit overwhelming - and people at the back of the line will get stuck with some of the not-so-well-made bean casseroles prac mentioned :) My point is, the more important concern here is about the logistics that some other posters have mentioned - not whether or not it's "tacky". I didn't even know that potluck weddings were supposed to be tacky in the first place.

  19. What ESB and Morgan said. Especially what Morgan said.

    (I think even Miss Manners would be okay with this particular potluck wedding, but only because you live in the South and because you are supplying the "main" food. Just don't so much as hint that it's mandatory to bring a side dish.)

  20. I think potluck weddings are awesome, and i wish someone would invite me to one!

    We considered potluck before we ended up finding an incredibly affordable caterer, and there were a few logistical things you might want to consider:

    -you probably want to delegate a potluck superviser who can oversee the potluck for you, mainly because of the rest of my points:
    - how are your guests getting back? will it be convenient for them to take their dish home?
    - if they are taking their dish home, should you arrange to have it cleaned beforehand? You should probably also ask them to label their dish with their name!
    - maybe it would be easier to tell everyone to bring their potluck in disposable dishes?
    - How will you avoid 40 potato salads? This is where a potluck superviser can come in really handy - the invitiation could say "potluck wedding - please e-mail Thelma to arrange"

    I know, i'm really irritating. But those are some of the things we thought about, logistically, when looking into potluck.

    and please do it! if i had cut out all the things my mom didn't like about our wedding, i woudn't have had a wedding left to have!

  21. i honestly have mixed feelings about this. i have been to some potlucks that are awesome. some have been horrid. i think maybe to call it a 'potluck' might turn some people off... i know someone, in fact, refuses to go to potlucks because she is afraid of other people's cleanliness + cooking practices.

    maybe you just ask a few friends to make things you know that they love that they make? (like mini fried apple pies). that way it will be fun + personal, but everyone doesn't have to feel obligated to bring a dish. i mean, i wouldn't want to bring a dish. that's just me. but that doesn't mean i would be any less happy for you on your wedding day.

  22. I am sitting here in Kentucky thinking of what I could bring to your Southern potluck. Homemade sausage? Homemade mallomars? Really good bread? Lots of fresh deviled eggs? So I say go for it. How long has it been since all weddings were potlucks? Time to bring it back!
    And to the folks who don't like potlucks or think it's tacky, they are more than welcome to feed themselves before or after the wedding, or stay home.
    Enjoy it and tell us how it turns out.

  23. When I was getting married the wisest reception advice I got was "If you want it to be laid-back and relaxed, then it has to be really organised. Because people only relax if they feel everything's been taken care of". It made a lot of sense to me.

    So if you want a laid-back pot luck, you will have to make sure people know some finer details such as 'bring it in the dish it will be served in', bring utensils to serve it, where to take the food before the ceremony, where they can collect their dishes at the end of the night or the next day etc. This will put a lot of people (and not just fussy people) at ease because they will feel like sh*t's being 'taken care of'. But I agree with the others that you cant be specific about the food itself, broad categories will put your mind at ease too.

  24. I agree that it involves A LOT of planning and would say it might be best to either a) ask those people that you know would love it to pitch in or b) cater. I'm not saying a potluck isn't a great idea, (I'm one of those people that will show up with a thousand homemade cupcakes) but it's one of those ideas that works a lot better for a backyard, home wedding with 12, than a wedding for 50+

    I'm not trying to be a downer, but there are some huge things to keep in mind. And if by chance you can work all these out (without driving you crazy), then I say go for it and just ask your mom who should not be included in the potluck request.

    Anyhow, here are the main things that you need to keep in mind:

    1) Having a variety. As prac said, no one wants 20 bean casseroles.
    2) Dishes and serving utensils. (Are they marked? Do you clean them before the owner takes them back? What if someone looses someones heirloom silver spoon?- and yes, who brings an heirloom spoon, but I promise SOMEONE will.)
    3) What do the guests do with the food before the ceremony? Are they to bring it with them, put it out on a table before hand?
    4) Linked to number 3, will there be enough refrigerator space to hold everything? What about to heat everything? I know most Southerners have a love for mayo and other egg products and that CANNOT sit out. (mass vomiting normally doesn't mix well with weddings)
    5) If you do have the space and methods to keep things warm etc, do you have people to do it? Or will you ask your friends to rush from the ceremony and lay everything out?

    These are just some things to keep in mind. Like I said, if you can work it out, go for it! Otherwise, I'd hire out. That way, when something runs out, it's replaced or removed. Things are heated and cooled appropriately, etc. And it doesn't have to be a caterer- it could be y'all's favorite Southern restaurant or something. (And if you really love the mismatched container look of potlucks, I know any good caterer would be happy to use dishes you provide.)

    Either way, good luck!!

  25. Pot luck wedding dinner idea totally kick ass.
    Just maybe have them label stuff so no one with a nut allergy bites into your Aunt Linda's Secret Nut Surprise

  26. love the potluck idea...but i'm also itching to know what they will put on their playlist ;) perhaps 'already frustrated' will care to share with lil' ole' me :)

  27. For a completely honest opinion -- if I were invited to a potluck wedding, I would think it was tacky. Also, I would resent having to bring a dish. Are guests also giving gifts, I assume? People often have to pay a lot to come to a wedding, and this sounds like one more task/expense. Treat your guests right -- there's got to be a good BBQ place nearby that can do it up right fairly inexpensively?

  28. I just had a potluck wedding. I was all worried about what people would think but we couldn't afford it so here is what we did....

    We provided the main dish, but don't even think of cooking it yourself, it is way to much to handle the day before/day of your wedding. We had a caterer cook it and drop it off. The cost shouldn't be very high and is worth it.
    We provided the booze and other drinks, your guests will be way more willing to bring food if they know they will drink the night away for free.
    On our invitations we explained how much we love the food our friends and family can make and couldn't think of anything we would rather eat on our wedding day. We also included that we didn't need EVERYONE to bring something so if it was inconvenient to bring something don't worry. If your guest know that it is OK to not bring something they are less likely to bitch day of.
    On the RSVP was a spot to check off if they were bringing a side, a pie, or just themselves. Don't make them bring something specific, most people that will bring food have a dish they love and want to share with others. If they need direction they can ask you and let them know what your thinking. If they have a dish you love ask them to bring that, if not tell them what your main dish is and ask what they were thinking of bringing.
    We hired servers. For 200 people we had 4 servers and our bartender. They know how to run a show and will take all the stress off the guests. All our guests needed to do was show up with the food and hand it off to the servers. The servers were in charge of chilling/warming all the food, setting up the buffet, clearing, takedown, cleaning and whatever else needed to be done. Make sure to hire one lead server that will know what to do so your mom doesn't spend the whole night in the kitchen giving directions.
    have your servers pack you a picnic with a bunch of the different dishes, we barely ate a bite at the wedding but we had a chance to try a lot of the dishes later that night.

    It was amazing! We had so much good food, the guests LOVED it. Many said it was the best food they ever had at a wedding and it was so special to them to be such a part of our day. Throughout our planning I got to have so many great conversations about food and it gave me a conversation starter with some of the guests I didn't know so well, aka most of my husbands side.
    That night my new husband and I got to sit around the hotel going over the whole day and all the craziness while snacking away on all the amazing food and desserts.

    There will be a lot of people that will complain and tell you you are crazy for doing a potluck but those are the same people that will bitch about whatever you decide to do. Do what you want to do, it's your day and your call and if you have great foodies in your life use that resource and have some great food. It takes a lot of work to pull off a potluck but it is sooooooo worth it. Good luck!

  29. Potluck: do it. If you decide not to, another option: low country boil - potentially less work, equal deliciousness.

  30. I've been to two potluck weddings. One that worked, and one not so much. I think it's like *peanut said, it depends on the number of people, (and how far the wedding is from their home kitchen).
    The potluck wedding that worked had @55 people, the bride and groom set up a "registry" listing things like "animal protein lasagna in a dish for the couple to keep" "non-animal protein lasagna in a dish for the couple to keep." The food and the dish were the gift, no other gifts were brought, and we ate about 90 minutes after arriving. (Though the bride's mother seemed to be doing a lot of work warming dishes and some folks were late due to last minute prep.)
    The one that didn't work was just over 100 people, had vague categories of side dish, appetizer or drink (the bride and groom catered the entree, and cases of wine), and ended up with a lot of salads, a lot of salads that had to be refrigerated for 4 hours before dinner. I went through the buffet line towards the end and it was very slim pickings. Guest generally brought a small gift and a small dish to pass.
    I like how *Morgan suggested handling it. And let people bringing food know that is their gift to you.

  31. i recently had a friend attempt a potluck wedding, and i'll admit--my first reaction was "tacky!" part of this was that she tasted a dish i made for her bridal shower, said, "you should bring this to the wedding!", i jokingly said yes, and three martinis later she told us all it was a potluck wedding and we should bring food. uh, what?
    it ended up not being an issue and not even a fully potluck wedding, but it really stressed people out.

    if you only ask people who live in the area and are good cooks who ENJOY cooking for lots of people, and don't expect them to also buy you a gift, i think it is fine. but really, don't even ask the people who don't fit that description. i love my friend (i was in the wedding!) but trying to figure out how i was supposed to make a dish for a wedding about 10 hrs from my home? just. pissed. me. off.