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As for holiday potlucks, some have had a bellyful

By L.M. Sixel

As for holiday potlucks, some have had a bellyful
  • November 17, 2005

Steaming dishes of green bean casserole. Platters of Jell-O mixed with Cool Whip. Crockpots of baked beans.

It's that time of the year again — the holiday office potluck in the conference room.

While some look forward to the annual opportunity to show off their cooking skills, others see the buffets as an annoyance.

"Everyone would bring the same damn thing," said Tony Pannagl, who still shudders to think of the annual potluck he endured at his old energy company.

"You'd have 15 different kinds of green beans. One would be with cream of mushroom soup, another would be cream of mushroom soup with bacon, and then cream of mushroom soup with onions, and then cream of mushroom soup with bread crumbs, and another with cream of mushroom soup with cheese," said Pannagl, who is now managing director of IS&T, an information technology consulting firm.

"And then everyone would want you to try it," he

The lunchtime tradition probably started innocently enough, but in some places it's become an ordeal.

Some gripe about why it is they have to provide the food and not the company. Others complain about the mystery concoctions, wondering whether the green fluffy stuff is a dip or a dessert. Others worry whether the plates of deviled eggs may have been left out too long.

Then there are the office politics to worry about.

"I hate tomatoes," Pannagl said. "I can't stand tomatoes. They're probably the worst things in the world. My direct boss would make a tomato casserole, and he'd ask, 'Why aren't you eating it?' " he said.

"You have to eat what your ... boss makes, and it could be the nastiest thing in the world," he said. "You're adding a whole new political dynamic to a holiday party that doesn't need to be there."

Catered event
The aggravations were enough for Pannagl to vow to celebrate the holidays in style — catered style. He rents a party room at a local restaurant and invites his 65 employees, ex-employees, vendors and clients.
"You don't want to put the responsibility on the employees for doing their own party,"
he said. "A company party should be hosted by the company, not by the
employees of a company."

Mocking the mystery dish
Company potlucks can lead to another problem: hurt feelings.
Someone eventually mocks a dish, Michael Grove, an account executive with outplacement firm DBM in Houston, said. But instead of trying it themselves, the mockers encourage others to try the mystery delight that seldom looks delightful.

"It creates tremendous embarrassment for the cook," said Grove, who added that he was known for his Caribbean coleslaw, which he swears was always popular.

Praise for the tasty
To avoid those so-so dishes at the annual holiday potluck, Graham Painter had a system when he managed public relations for the old Houston Lighting & Power.
"The people who brought something we liked, we praised a lot," he said, recalling how much he'd go on about one employee's dirty rice and another's stuffed jalapeños. "Those dishes were like manna from heaven."

And the ones that weren't crowd pleasers?

"They didn't get bragged on," he said.

They'd get the hint and the next year they'd search for something really good to make.

"It was like natural selection," he said. "It was a real subtle undercurrent of control over what people brought."

So what did Painter bring? Did he have a famous dish?

As department head, he brought the turkey.

"There was no illusion I was slaving over a hot stove."

With that kind of pressure in play, it's not hard to realize that what you cook for the holiday potluck can affect your image at work. Or at least say something about you as an employee.

Here's some advice from Norman Schippers, Houston managing director for Capital H Group, a business consulting firm dealing with human resource issues:

If you buy something pre-made, don't try to fake it so it looks as if you baked it at home. You don't want to blow your credibility and cause co-workers to doubt things you do at work.

Don't get too fancy
Schippers also recommends to fight the urge to be an overachiever.
"Don't show up with something that takes 10 hours to marinate, three hours to prepare and load it up with decorations as you bring it in the office," he said.

Unless you want to be seen as a big risk-taker at work, don't bring in a recipe you've never tried, he said. At worst, it looks as if you aren't very prepared.

So, is Schippers going to any potlucks this year?

"Luckily, no," he said.

Of course, not everyone is down on potluck feasts. Some really appreciate their co-workers' gifts of food, said Robin Bond, president of Transition Strategies, an employment law firm in Wayne, Pa., that specializes in representing senior executives.

One poll showed that 85 percent of workers reported varying degrees of feeling glad when co-workers brought goodies to the office.

People like to show off their cooking skills, she said, recalling her days as an in-house corporate counsel when she'd look forward to the annual lunch and her contribution of Christmas cookies.

Don't defeat the purpose
But if people don't enjoy it and just pick up something at the store, it loses its meaning, she said.
"The whole purpose of a potluck is a way of giving to each other the wonderful experience of homemade food," she said.

For some, the only way they can celebrate at work is by bringing a dish from home.

Goodwill Industries, for example, doesn't have the money to take its 100-plus employees to a restaurant.

So to celebrate Thanksgiving, workers are bringing dishes to pass around. The turkeys and beverages were donated by benefactors, said Bill Sala, director of work force development.

His contribution: He's paying to get the turkeys smoked.

"It's a big deal," Sala said. "There is considerable excitement about what people will bring."