Dear Helena,

Every month my book group has a potluck dinner. Last time, three people showed up with lasagne and no one brought salad. I am hosting this month and want to make sure there’s more variety. Can I tell people what to bring, and if so, how specific can I be? (We are doing a Russian novel, and I am considering asking everyone to bring Russian food.) Also, one member of the group is a terrible cook and always brings store-bought stuff. Is it OK to tell him I only want homemade, and if so, is there something idiot-proof that I can ask him to bring? —Potdon’tbelieveinLuck

Dear Potdon’tbelieveinLuck,

Most people don’t like to be told, “Oh, bring whatever.” It makes them feel anxious. They like some guidance. So feel comfortable telling your guests what category of food to bring (appetizer, entrée, and so forth). Some people like to divide their friends into alphabetical groups and assign a category to each.

Most people find themes inspiring. Stephanie Parsons∗, who works in a San Francisco architecture firm, says, “A themed potluck is like a costume party. There’s less pressure to awe people; instead, it’s more about bringing something fun.”

But don’t ever ask guests to bring specific dishes. If you do, you’re not hosting a potluck, you’re treating your friends as a takeout service. And even your guidelines must be optional. There’ll always be someone who insists on bringing her signature ratatouille, even though your theme is Elvis’s Favorite Foods.

Once you stop trying to control the menu, your potluck will have that piquant ingredient: surprise.

There is one caveat: Every averagely competent person thinks it’s very wrong to bring store-bought food to a potluck, as (a) it’s usually worse than homemade, (b) you can get store-bought anytime, and it’s fun to taste people’s cooking, and (c) it’s lazy to buy stuff, especially as potluck guests have to make only one dish. You can’t stop people from doing it, but you can tell the ones you suspect will resort to store-bought to contribute liquor instead. People who bring purchased stuff are usually the richer ones anyway, so they shouldn’t mind bringing a bottle.

Dear Helena,

A friend of mine is really into raw food, and last time I hosted a potluck, she brought “brownies” made of date paste, carob powder, and God knows what else. Someone else had brought actual brownies, so hers didn’t stand a chance. Not a single person ate one. I felt bad, as she went to a lot of trouble to make them. Now I wonder whether I should have tried to make them look more appealing, or maybe eaten a couple of them myself to salvage her feelings. If you’re hosting a potluck and a guest’s dish goes untouched, should you do anything about it? —Can’t Stomach Carob

Dear Can’t Stomach Carob,

If you noticed one of your guests sitting in the corner, you’d sit and chat with him for a few minutes and introduce him to other guests. You should do the same, in a sense, for an overlooked dish. Place the “brownies” at center stage on your buffet table, sample one yourself, and urge your friends to follow suit.

You need not attempt to make the “brownies” look more appetizing. The appearance of guests’ dishes, like their own appearance, is their affair. Offering to garnish their cooking is like asking them, “Would you like to borrow a hairbrush?”

Once you’ve pointed out the dish to your guests, your job is done. You don’t have to hover over the “brownies” any more than you would baby-sit a boring guest. And when you try one, don’t show too much enthusiasm. If you do, your friend might just make them again.

∗Name has been changed

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