Jackie Kennedy lights the candles.

Potluck in a Party Dress

I love hosting a party. I don't do it often, but once I commit, I go all in. That means good china, fine linens, crystal stemware, and a whole lot of cooking.

Cooking for guests 

I actually loathe cooking. But I love pleasing people. And setting a pretty table. And dressing up. That last one you already knew.

Here I am in 1995, hosting a tea party for about 20 friends. I'm at the savories table. Scones and other baked treats are behind me. Lots more goodies are out of frame. It was all handmade by me, from scratch. I did this twice, then took a 20-year break. 

Tea party by yours truly, 1995.

This recent tea party was far more modest, as the only guests were my husband, kids, and in-laws. This time, the sandwiches were simple and the scones made from a mix:

my 2015 tea party for family

In between I hosted my share of family gatherings, Sunday brunches, wine-and-cheese evenings, and July 4th celebrations. A few were appropriately informal and at least two involved (gasp, horrors) paper plates. I've entertained 25 for dinner and two for cocktails. 

Me, preparing a July 4th picnic gathering.The look you give your father-in-law for picking at the picnic prematurely.

Many guests have asked, "What should I bring?" My answer was always, "Just yourself."

If they asked, "May I bring a bottle of wine?" or "Should I bring my squash casserole?" I'd say, "Sure, if you'd like to. But it's certainly not required."

Clever hostess

Only Ellen's advance invitation might be: "You're coming for Thanksgiving and you're in charge of vegetables." You can do this after 37 years of best-friendship. 

BFF Ellen, through the years.

But I'd argue it's really the only time you should, unless your invitation clearly specifies: "Potluck!"

People who've never been to your home or life-cycle event, haven't engaged you in lengthy private conversation, who've never seen you naked or crying or indisposed, should not be asked to "bring something for everyone to share" at your not-a-potluck gathering. 

Want to get together but just not up for all the effort and expense? Plan a group visit to a restaurant and make it a Dutch treat. Or just state clearly from the outset that your event is a potluck. Nothing wrong with that.

I'm not dictating what sort of event you should host. I'm merely pressing for clarity and cordiality.

These are examples of perfectly reasonable, unambiguous invitations for a potluck: 

potluck invitations

In contrast, these invitations constitute a bait and switch. At first glance it's a straightforward party invitation. But on closer inspection, no:

ambiguous party invitationsMy goodness, hot and cold? And are the Walkers short on linens?

Things are no different if you opt for modern convenience. Old-fashioned manners still count. I'd argue that your Evite's "Message From Host" section should be reserved for helpful hints, not distribution of labor.

Showing up with a token for your host* is always appropriate (though I'd advise against live animals):

Hostess Gifts Combo

But a hostess gift is what it sounds like: a personal gift for an individual, given at the guest's discretion in appreciation of, not as payment for, inclusion. Not even a host raised by wolves would demand or request one. 

Simply put, if you can't afford (in any sense of the word) to host a party, don't. Throw a potluck, state so up front, and enjoy. If you invite me, I'll bring something suitable. 

potluck food

I can't leave you with that array of ghastly images, so here's a two-bite palate cleanser to see you off:

Mustard company booklet, 1930sMustard company booklet, 1930.

50s cocktail party
50s Party

* A gift for your host is considerate. But bringing unrequested food intended to be shared, without consulting him beforehand, requires him to graciously set out something that may not comply with household dietary restrictions or, less important but undesirably awkward at formal gatherings, may detract from a carefully considered table arrangement. 

I've seen well-meaning guests bring meatballs to a vegetarian home, shrimp to a kosher home, and set a foil-topped Tupperware container with plastic serving tongs on a formal, candle-lit buffet.

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