All photos by Spindle Photography
The most important thing about my wedding, to me, was to invite our community into our lives … and the second most important thing was to not spend too much money doing it. (Okay, that wasn’t really the second most important thing, but it was pretty important.) I thought a wedding potluck might be a great way to accomplish both goals at once.
I looped in my friend Josh Miller, who’s an editor at Food & Wine, and he agreed to help. By “looped in,” I mean, “was clearly in massive distress,” and by “agreed to help,” I mean, “Josh completely took responsibility for the entire project and saved me from myself.”
I liked the idea of a potluck wedding, but the ones I read about involved foregoing gifts altogether and asking everyone to bring a covered dish of their choice instead. Instead, I wanted to create a loosely structured, German-themed menu. (That’s because we were getting married in a biergarten, and also because Russell used to live in Germany.)
My original concept was to make a long list of what kinds of foods we needed, identify certain people on the guest list who I thought would be into this sort of thing, and ask them if they’d mind bringing a dish as their gift. Josh helped me finalize the menu and created the spreadsheet.
And then … it became clear that this was going to be a real pain to keep up with. There were so many different things we needed and a lot of logistics needed to make it all work. I was also having more trouble than I’d thought finding enough people on the guest list that I felt comfortable asking for food. (Most of our relatives live out of town, and it didn’t seem fair to ask them to travel with food.)
We ended up doing a hybrid potluck (which is a term I just made up, I think). Josh took $300 and covered of most of the shopping list — the sausages, cheese, bread and fruit. I took care of the pretzels (that’s a whole other story). We decided to only ask friends for potato salad (we picked this German potato salad, partly because it’s vinegar based and could sit on a table for a couple of hours without poisoning our guests) and bundt cakes. This made keeping up with our spreadsheet a lot easier, and I still got my warm-and-fuzzy community feeling.
From my perspective, this all turned out beautifully. I loved seeing those tables piled with delicious food and knowing that people I loved and cared about made it happen. I did not love seeing how much Josh, his husband David, and our friends Kathleen and Sarah and Alison (and Leslie and Nancy, and whoever else I didn’t notice slaving away behind the scenes) had to work for hours before and during the ceremony to make all this come together — but their willingness to do it did make my heart grow a couple of sizes.
I’m so happy with the way this hybrid potluck turned out, and I wanted to share how we prepped for anyone else planning a potluck for a wedding (or for any big party, really). Josh agreed to chime in with his perspective too, since, as the bride, I’m guessing the most stressful parts of the day were, mercifully, hidden from me. So here are my tips for a hybrid potluck wedding that ends up looking (and tasting) pretty fantastic:
We Make Josh Our “Food Czar”
This is a term I made up for lack of a better one — but Josh was my go-to person for all things food. He put an incredible amount of time and energy into making sure everything ran smoothly. If you’re planning on doing any kind of potluck, I’d strongly recommend appointing someone who’s just in charge of food and not trying to coordinate other parts of the wedding. Where there is food, there is chaos, and you want someone who can manage that. Having someone who’s interested in food enough so that they can triage small emergencies is helpful, and having someone who’s organized is critical. Josh helped me create my menu, figured out how much we’d need per person, created the spreadsheet and coordinated on the day of. He worked the entire wedding in the kitchen, plating and organizing food, chopping and serving, and being sure platters were kept full. He (and his team, including his husband, David, and our friends Kathleen and Sarah) worked incredibly hard the whole day.
Josh: Carrie’s making it sound more heroic than it actually was. Being a closet introvert with extrovert tendencies, I actually found it quite soothing to retreat into the kitchen after dashing through a crowd of mostly strangers. It was the perfect excuse for avoiding small talk. “Sorry! Gotta get more sausages!” Also…the best part—the kitchen had a walk-in (refrigerated storage room), so I periodically slipped in there to bring my body temperature back down to “not Whitney Houston sweating on stage” levels.
We Made a Wedding Potluck Spreadsheet
We listed the foods that we needed and matched them up with names and contact information of people who’d agreed to bring food. The spreadsheet helped Josh and I coordinate who was bringing what, and it gave us an organized way of getting in contact. I used the spreadsheet to remind people a few days before the wedding that they’d agreed to bring something, and both Josh and my coordinator had access so they could get in touch day-of if necessary.
Josh: Typically, I HATE spreadsheets; they’re where creativity goes to die. But Google Sheets I like. I cannot explain it. <lady shrug emoji>
We Bought Some Food Ourselves
Instead of a true potluck, we did a hybrid — we bought some things, like sausages, cheeses and fruit, ourselves. The money it cost us (about $300) was worth avoiding all the logistics that would’ve been involved with delivering and prepping everything day-of.
Josh: This was the greatest gift Carrie could have given me. The potluck idea was awesome, but relinquishing that much control is hives-inducing. That $300 bought me a ton of time, which when trying to feed 200 guests, was worth its weight in gourmet cheese.
Most Guests Weren’t Asked to Bring Food
We only asked people we knew really well and who we thought wouldn’t mind cooking to bring food. For the most part, we didn’t assign dishes to out-of-town guests because they didn’t have access to a kitchen in Birmingham (we did get bundt cakes from a few guests who did have to travel but didn’t have to get on a plane). I tried to make it clear that we were asking for food instead of a gift, not asking for someone to undertake the hassle of making and delivering food AND bringing a separate gift.
We Were Specific about What Food We Wanted (We Even Linked to Recipes)
Instead of asking just for cakes, we asked for bundt cakes — picking a similar style helped our cake table look cohesive, and our guests didn’t have to agonize over what kind of cake we might like. We let people choose which flavor of bundt cake to bring, but when it came to the German potato salad, we asked guests to make a specific recipe. Not only did that take the decision making out of the equation, it also allowed us to refill serving bowls since every batch was made from the same recipe. (We got so many compliments on that salad, by the way, and lots of requests for the recipe; here it is!)
Josh: Sidebar: Know your limits. In addition to prepping/staging food, I was also supposed to style the cake table. I was TOTALLY in the weeds, like, “OMG, this is about to go off the RAILS!” when Carrie’s wedding coordinator (my dear friend and former boss) asked if I was going to have time to tackle the cake table. I took a deep breath, looked at her, and said, “I’m really not. Can you possibly handle it?” And she did. And I was able to wrangle my ADD and knock out what I needed to knock out, without splintering my attention any further. It was a huge blessing, and an even bigger lesson. Don’t overcommit, or if you do, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Family Members Were Asked to Bring Similar Items
Speaking of that potato salad — we needed eight batches. Four families on our guest list are related to each other, and I knew they’d be getting together the weekend of the wedding, so instead of assigning a bundt cake to one family member and potato salad to another, we asked them each for a double batch of the salad. That way, they could make it together or at least troubleshoot the recipe with each other if necessary.
Everything on Our Menu Could Be Served Room-Temperature
We didn’t want to have to worry about keeping food warm on a buffet, so we chose food that could be served at room temperature.
Josh: Crock pots are tacky. Plus they have cords, which mean outlets, which mean extension cords, which quickly become booby traps for drunk cousins who get got by Gloria Estefan’s rhythm. And don’t get me started on Sterno. Tiny cans of fire? Witchcraft. NO THANK YOU.
We Decanted Food into Matching Dishes
We were able to get a much more cohesive look because we brought our own serveware and decanted most of the food into it. I was extremely lucky that our venue allowed us to use their serving dishes, silverware and napkins (we paid for a dishwasher to be able to do this), so we had a lot to work with. For the cake table, we asked around to find people with serving platters that were wood or white so they’d coordinate. And my parents built amazing wooden boards that we used to serve the pretzels.
Josh: I can’t stress this enough—if you don’t want your wedding to look like a family reunion, pick a simple theme and stick to it. Even a tacky white platter will fade away after it’s topped with 15 pounds of cheese.
We Planned for Problems
If you throw a wedding potluck, someone will forget to bring food to your wedding, despite frequent reminders. Someone will get sick. Someone will keep their bundt cake in a hotel that was, unbeknownst to them, infested with ants, and their cake will be ruined (this happened to us). Since you’re not having a sit-down dinner, you can deal with some of this “shrinkage,” but I was still glad that we planned to have some extra food so we weren’t thrown when something went wrong.
Josh: Cake table. Not my problem! 😉
Food Drop off Was Hours Before the Wedding
It takes a lot of time to set up food — way more than you probably think. We asked guests to drop their food off two to three hours ahead of time. That allowed us time to set up and serve everything, and it gave them time to be a little bit late without throwing off the timeline too much. We did this because our wedding was at our reception venue, and our ceremony was very short — we started eating about 30 minutes after the event began. If you’re having your reception set up during your ceremony, you’ll have a little extra time to work with.
Josh: In hindsight, I should have set up a food drop off table, *clearly marked* so that folks could drop their food and go without a preamble and handholding. Not to seem ungrateful, but two hours before service is no time for chit-chat!
I really emphasized to everyone bringing food that they’d need to leave the wedding with their own dishes or risk losing them — I didn’t want Josh or my family to have to be in charge of keeping track of a bunch of Tupperware. Since we weren’t serving in the dishes people brought the food in, some of them were able to take their dishes back when they dropped off the food.
Josh: Full disclosure (and Carrie, this is the first you’re hearing of this!) I have two Lost-and-Found boxes of tupperware and serving dishes from the wedding in my attic! I’ve almost thrown them away twice. <grimace emoji> Carrie, we should probably do something with them? <shrug emoji>
Carrie: Okay wedding guests and bringers of potluck items — if you have Tupperware or serving dishes from the wedding that you want back, let me know this week. Otherwise, I’m letting Josh give them up for lost to the squirrels in this attic.
We Planned for Clean up
I knew I wasn’t going to be around after the wedding; Russell and I were going straight to our hotel and leaving in the morning for our honeymoon. But it was important that the venue was cleaned up the night of the wedding. We hired a dishwasher through our venue, so they helped with trash and the dishes — this ended up being a huge help, and wasn’t that expensive, so if you can get this option, I definitely would.
Josh: <praise hands emoji>
Everything else was handled by my family — I made a pretty detailed spreadsheet about who was responsible for what. This required a lot of thinking ahead of time about how the event was going to flow, but it was critical for my being able to relax and know that everything would be handled.
There were some DIY choices we made about the wedding that I might not do over again if I had the chance, but I’d absolutely choose a potluck again. I love that so many people we care about were involved in a hands-on way with our meal, and everyone I talked to seemed to be genuinely liking the food. And we got to serve better food, and more of it, than we would have been able to if we’d spent our very small budget on catering.
Carrie Rollwagen married Russell Marbut in September of 2018. She’s the author of The Localist, a book about buying independent, and cofounder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Currently, she’s Director of Strategic Planning at Infomedia, a Birmingham-based web development company. Find her on social media as @crollwagen: Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Russell is a web developer and jiu jitsu instructor who isn’t much into wedding blogs or website bios. He’s on Instagram as @russellg9.