Party Like It's 2016: Potlucks can be hip

Elizabeth Weinstein, Columbus Alive contributor

There are two kinds of people in the world - those who get an invite to a potluck and think, "Yay! Now I have an excuse to try out that new quinoa salad recipe," and those who think, "Is it really so wrong to pick up hummus and pita from the store and pretend I made it?"

There's absolutely nothing wrong with bringing restaurant or store-bought food to a potluck. But we talked with four local foodies about the latest potluck trends and asked them for advice on how to throw a unique potluck that's guaranteed to get guests so excited they forget the deli counter even exists.

Bethia Woolf

Owner, Columbus Food Adventures

"One of my friends just started what she is calling 'cookbook club,' for a group of [about eight] friends," Woolf said. It's like a book club, except for foodies. "The idea is that each month you pick a cookbook…and everybody cooks something from that recipe book. That's a great thing to do if you have a group of friends who are really into cooking and are willing to make the effort."

Woolf is also a fan of Asian-inspired hot pot dinner parties - especially during the winter.

"You have multiple pots of broth on the table. Someone is in charge of bringing the broth, and then you divide up different ingredients (meat, fish, mushrooms, noodles, greens) to bring," she explained. "So, instead of bringing cooked dishes, you are bringing ingredients to cook in a hot pot." It's the perfect potluck dinner for a weeknight, when no one really has time to cook, she added.

Cara Mangini

Owner, Little Eater and Little Eater Produce and Provisions in the North Market

"I think the holidays and the winter months are a perfect time to get everyone cooking and join forces to get a beautiful meal on the table," Mangini said. When hosting potlucks, her philosophy is to "curate the experience with unexpected details." For example, she, said, you can serve fun cocktails and create either a very relaxed atmosphere (where guests can come in sweats and sit on the floor) or a super fancy one (where guests dress in cocktail attire and sit around an elegantly set table).

No matter what style of potluck you plan, though, it's always important to think about food safety. "Wash your hands well, clean your produce, and cook your food to the right temperature," Mangini said. "If you are cooking in advance, make sure to refrigerate your food until it is time to leave for the party. Reheat it as needed."

Dara Schwartz

Creative director and owner of Darista Dips and Darista Cafe

Schwartz enjoys throwing themed potlucks inspired by pop culture for her friends. She once hosted a girls' night potluck around the '80s TV sitcom, "Punky Brewster," for example, where they binged on old episodes and indulged in food items popular back in the day - pizza rolls, ridged potato chips with sour cream and onion dip, strawberry shortcake, etc.

Whatever a potluck's theme, however, Schwartz has one general rule of thumb. "More often than not, I tell people what to bring," she said. "I find it is helpful to assign or at least give some boundaries to your guests so you don't have repeat items and are not missing anything."

Knowing your guests' strengths and weaknesses is important. "Some will hate cooking, and some will love to bake. You don't want your guests to be stressed," she said, and telling people what to bring alleviates that anxiety. In addition, when she's hosting a potluck, Schwartz always provides the main dish and gives a lot of thought to making the get-together visually welcoming, through up-cycled decor.

She keeps a stash of burlap sacks, clear vases (for flowers or fresh herbs), farmer wood crates (flipped upside down for food presentation) and Mason jars (for silverware and napkins) on hand and decorates them with ribbons and ornaments, depending on the season. She also writes out a menu on old windowpanes with a chalkboard marker.

Jennie Scheinbach

Founder and co-owner of Pattycake Bakery

Among Scheinbach's circle of friends, "the potluck is the new dinner party now," she said.

Every year, she pulls together a big Thanksgiving potluck for friends, family and anyone else that might not have somewhere to go for the holiday. Most of the food that people bring to her Thanksgiving dinner is vegan or vegetarian, and she asks guests to label their dishes (as gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, etc.) to ensure that everyone, regardless of dietary preferences and allergies, can stuff themselves full. Like Schwartz, Scheinbach always cooks the main dish when hosting a potluck, and she makes sure it is something that just about everyone can eat. But that's as far as she goes with planning, preferring instead to keep things spontaneous.

"I'm of the school of thought that the less control, the better," she said. "I like to invite everyone I know, give them free reign and see what happens… Usually there's enough variety."

A useful trick that she picked up from attending meals at collective or cooperative houses in Columbus (like the Midden, near Campus) is that go-'rounds can help during lulls in the conversation. In a go-'round, a host pulls out a random question (how have you changed this year? How did you meet your partner?), and then everyone takes turns sharing their stories. "It's a real chance to get to know the people who you are at the potluck with," Scheinbach said.